Once upon a time, English National Ballet visited Milton Keynes Theatre to dance The Sleeping Beauty.
The Sleeping Beauty was the very first ballet I saw live at a theatre when I was a child and it remains a firm favourite of mine. In fact, having seen Tamara Rojo rise to the challenge of her first occasion as both artistic director of, and principal ballerina with, English National Ballet by gracing the stage as Princess Aurora in the last week, I think this beloved narrative ballet will forever be a special one for me.
Bringing to life the world’s favourite fairytale, The Sleeping Beauty is often the standard by which classical ballet companies are judged. This is because it is one of the biggest and most difficult ballets to stage, showcasing pure, unadulterated dance – heavenly for lovers of classical productions.
During my recent interview with Tamara Rojo she acknowledged the importance of such opulent productions and the commendable commitment that English National Ballet shows in meeting touring obligations. She said: “classical ballet is a big and important part of the repertoire for a ballet company as it is traditional and it is what draws new audiences to the ballet.”
On opening night, Rojo would have been all too aware of the judgements being made of her — as both newly acquired chief ballerina (returning to the company where she first flourished as a principal) and top boss. It must be tricky to dance as a carefree sixteen-year-old princess while being responsible for ensuring the company survives as a business in a climate of cuts. Not to mention also dancing with her very own employees.
Opening night was English National Ballet’s 98th performance of The Sleeping Beauty so Rojo had pressure to maintain standards both as a principal and as a creative manager. Anticipation was clearly in the air as members of the press and an eager audience awaited her entrance.
From when the curtain rises on the prologue of this production, wonderful choreography by Kenneth MacMillan and a score featuring some of Tchaikovsky’s best-loved ballet music ever (including the Rose Adagio and the music used as Once Upon a Dream in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty) combine to reawaken the type of magic we all believed in as children.
The company casts its spell over the audience as celebrations begin (once upon a time, in a land far away) for the christening of baby Aurora. Graceful fairies bestow the child with the gifts of beauty, temperament, purity, joy, wit and generosity. The ballerinas personifying these fairies flit across the stage with sublime skill as they dance their technically demanding solos.
MacMillan’s choreography is testing and any flaws in technique and stamina are impossible to hide but English National Ballet’s focus on the execution of high quality classical ballet saw even the hardest sautés and hops en pointe in the fairy solos performed with a careful – if sometimes slightly tentative – ease.
Gorgeous, luxurious tutus give the fairies an otherworldly beauty and the autumnal colours blend with Peter Farmer’s stunning set design. Meanwhile, Wicked Fairy Carabosse (James Streeter) storms onto the stage in a whirl of flowing Tudor dress and ruff (designed by Nicholas Georgiadis) and surrounded by an entourage of spooky, skull-faced attendants. Streeter completely embodies Carabosse. He is everything he needs to be to express her envy and evil ways, yet manages to avoid crossing the line into caricature.
Carabosse places a curses on Aurora, which will cause the princess to prick her finger and die on her sixteenth birthday. Fortunately, the beautiful and kind Lilac Fairy (a striking Daria Klimentová) is on hand to square up to Carabosse. Lilac counters the curse so that, instead of dying, Aurora falls asleep for one hundred years. Only the restorative power of true love’s kiss will break the spell and awaken Aurora.
Like many traditional fairytales, the struggle between good and evil is a key thread to The Sleeping Beauty – the story is driven by the rivalry between the Lilac Fairy and Carabosse. This is portrayed largely through mime. Indeed, the benevolent Lilac Fairy role has at times been described as a mime role. Not here though, Daria Klimentová lit up the stage, dancing her solo with her usual elegance and spreading joy to the auditorium as true love prevailed.
There is so much noteworthy choreography in The Sleeping Beauty. The Rose Adagio as Princess Aurora is presented to her four suitors in Act One (balancing on one leg in attitude derrière). The Garland Waltz. The Bluebird and Princess Florine pas de deux.
The wonderful Rose Adagio, always a thrilling moment as each of the perfectly poised balances is given a teetering moment of glory, must never have felt so nerve-wracking for the men as they waited to see when Rojo (their new boss) would want a steadying hand.
Bluebird was to be danced by Yonah Acosta (nephew of the charismatic Carlos) on opening night, but, as is sometimes the nature of casting, this was changed. Laurent Liotardo, making his debut in the role, gave the Bluebird his all. However, it did feel like a slightly nervous performance. He suffered an unfortunate wobble or two, which meant his batterie seemed to lack attack at times.
Shiori Kase, making her debut in the role of Princess Florine, was positively enchanting. She fluttered across the stage, gracefully spreading her wings and teasing us with her newfound ability to fly.
The royal wedding is a captivating climax in this ballet. It showcases more beautiful dancing as the storybook characters – Puss in Boots (Juan Rodríguez) and the White Cat (Venus Villa), Red Riding Hood (Sayako Tomiyoshi) and the Wolf (Max Westwell), in addition to the aforementioned Bluebird and Princess Florine – dance the celebratory finale interludes.
The prince and princess themselves, Prince Désiré (Vadim Muntagirov, who has been building a strong partnership with the Company’s leading ballerina until now, Daria Klimentová) and Princess Aurora (Rojo) created fairy-tale magic.
Rojo gave a majestic performance. Her astonishing balances en pointe in the Rose Adagio may not have lingered for as long as in previous productions, but a more cautious approach is understandable for this opening night in particular. Muntagirov gave as good as he got, matching Tamara’s technique and embodying elegance and energy, particularly in the final act.
The Orchestra of English National Ballet is more than just an accompaniment – the company strives to achieve the highest musical, as well as dancing, standards. Unsurprisingly, the glorious score was performed beautifully.
In short, English National Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty is a spellbinding production. The dancers, sets, costumes and music will enchant balletomanes and newcomers. As the tour continues and the dancers settle into their roles, the production looks set to just keep getting better.
*Photography courtesy of English National Ballet.
Visit the English National Ballet website for information on all current productions.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.