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 was taken to see at a theatre as a child and it remains a favourite of mine.
World-famous ballerina Tamara Rojo’s first outing as both Artistic Director of, and principal ballerina with, English National Ballet saw her take to the stage at Milton Keynes Theatre last week as Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty.
A narrative ballet, 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.
Tamara herself acknowledges the importance of such opulent productions and the commendable commitment that English National Ballet shows in meeting touring obligations. In an interview before the start of English National Ballet’s latest tour, she told me: “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, Tamara 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. What pressure she must have felt to dance as a carefree sixteen-year-old princess while carrying with her the challenge of ensuring the Company survives as a business in a climate of cuts and 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 the entrance of Tamara in the second Act.
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 Princess Aurora. Graceful fairies bestow the child with the gifts of beauty, temperament, purity, joy, wit and generosity, dancing technically demanding but skilfully performed short 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 other-worldly 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.
Twisting his lips, Streeter completely embodies Carabosse, but avoids crossing the line into caricature as the evil character curses baby Aurora 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. She counters the curse so that, instead of dying, Aurora falls asleep for one hundred years. Only the touch of true love’s kiss can awaken her and undo the evil spell…
Like many traditional fairytales, the struggle between good and evil is a key thread to The Sleeping Beauty as 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 often been described simply as a mime role. Nonetheless, Daria Klimentová lit up the stage, dancing her solo with her usual elegance and spreading joy to the auditorium as true love prevails and Carabosse’s curse is broken.
There is so much noteworthy choreography in The Sleeping Beauty. The Rose Adagio as Princess Aurora is presented to her four suitors in Act 1 (balancing on one leg in attitude derrière). The Garland Waltz. The Bluebird 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 their boss would want a steadying hand.
Bluebird was to be danced by Yonah Acosta (nephew of the charismatic Carlos) on opening night (according to Tamara when we spoke) but as is sometimes the nature of casting, this was changed.
Laurent Liotardo, making his debut in the role, gave the Bluebird his all but it was a slightly nervous performance. He suffered an unfortunate wobble here or there and his batterie could perhaps benefit from more attack, but nothing that cannot be rectified once nerves are overcome.
Shiori Kase, making her debut in the role of Princess Florine alongside Bluebird, was positively enchanting, fluttering across the stage, gracefully spreading her wings and teasing us with her ability to fly.
The elegant 18th century royal wedding, the climax to the tale, 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) and the aforementioned Bluebird and Princess Florine — dance the celebratory finale interludes.
The fairytale 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) delivered a technically well-executed performance, despite the pressure they must have felt.
He was dancing with his new boss, she was dancing while casting a critical gaze over her new principal male and other artists, but together they created the partnership of prince and princess.
Tamara Rojo gave a majestic performance, perhaps not holding her astonishing balances en pointe in the Rose Adagio for as long as in previous productions but a more cautious approach is understandable for this opening night in particular. Vadim Muntagirov gave as good as he got, matching Tamara’s technique and offering an exhilarating performance, 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 — and the glorious score was beautifully performed, allowing every musician to shine.
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 a journalist, a dance writer and a dance teacher who specialises in teaching classical ballet. She previews and reviews productions, writes features and interviews people from the world of dance.