Words by Lucy Mounfield / Pics by Bill Cooper
Peter Wright has long been a dominating force in the world of ballet. His classic productions of Giselle, The Nutcracker, Coppélia, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty (the list goes on) have for decades been a mainstay of ballet companies all over the world.
His understanding of the importance of the classical repertoire, Russian tradition, and the public’s love of a magical fairy tale has seen him become one of the greatest choreographers of all time.
So, it’s no surprise that Birmingham Royal Ballet kicks off 2018 with a wonderous winter’s tale, The Sleeping Beauty. Having toured Peter Wright’s 1984 version of the classic earlier this year, the company has brought it back to home ground with a two-week long run at the Birmingham Hippodrome. This production is immensely satisfying for anyone who enjoys the classical tropes of glittery tutus, elaborate scenery, a weighty ensemble presence, an emotive Tchaikovsky score, and wonderful story-telling. Wright’s The Sleeping Beauty has it all, and I am thoroughly enchanted by not only the choreography, but also the production values.
Transported to the courtly setting of the Ancien Régime, Philip Prowse’s staging evokes splendour and opulence, with a colour palette of gold, black, dark red and a burnt umber that is fantastically suggestive of the evil curse that befalls princess Aurora (Momoko Hirata) at the hands of the wicked fairy Carabosse (Nao Sakuma). At the beginning of the ballet, King Florestan XXIV and his queen celebrate the birth of their first child with a grand christening. Six fairies – there are too many to name but suffice to say they represent virtues such as beauty, honour, song and modesty – are invited to bring gifts.
These six fairies perform with skill and aplomb, each giving a virtuoso performance utilising Wright’s choreography to the fullest. I particularly enjoy Modesty (Yvette Knight) and Song’s (Karlar Doobar) solo performances, the bourreés communicating the joyful and celebratory atmosphere of the event. The fairies do well to convey personality, which many of the courtiers and suitors lack. The Master of Ceremonies (Michael O’Hare) adds a light-hearted tone to the proceedings as the forgetful organiser of the guestlist; it is he who receives the brunt of Carabosse’s camp anger at being left off the party’s invited roll call.
Act One takes us forward to the birthday of Aurora and the arrival of her suitors. The role of Aurora is technically difficult and requires the dancer to build the role, adding layers of character development. Hirata does this well; from the beginning she projects confidence of a young girl who oozes charm and wit, but whose confidence turns to impish naivete when presented with her suitors. Hirata tackles the tricky Rose Adagio well; her balance is perfect. The arabesques en pointe were suggestive of Aurora’s girlish intensity. The solo routine is finely poised and the fouetté en tournant is a spectacular sight, taking our breath away in disbelief. Her joie de vivre makes her eventual sleep all the more poignant; the moment when Aurora pricks her finger is fantastic and, alongside the score, gives me chills which I feel ripple through the audience.
The crystal white tutus worn by Aurora and the pink and pearly gowns of the Lilac Fairy (Jenna Roberts) contrast well with the charred black of Carabosse, setting up the story of good versus evil. Carabosse’s minions stalk the stage, creeping and crawling with an animalistic intensity, wearing spiky headdresses and fractured masks. These costume touches work well in imparting characterisation and a sense of threat into the ballet, making up for the fact that the part of the evil fairy is a mime role with very little dance. The lack of dance for the scenes involving Carabosse and the Lilac Fairy is questionable. The mime works well when Carabosse discovers she has been missed off the guestlist for the ball at the start of Act One; her anger is easily identifiable and locates her as a possible threat to Aurora.
However, the battle between good and evil would have been more obvious with a clash of movement between the Lilac Fairy and the evil fairy. Instead, the scene where Carabosse curses the young princess Aurora appears limpid and lacks the intensity of threat. And consequently, it is harder to take the evil fairy’s plans seriously, as the mime acting is a little staged and one-dimensional. Although this is somewhat redeemed by the Roberts’s unflappable presence and crystal-clear gestures, which push past the limitations of the role of character dancer.
As revenge for being dismissed from the christening, Carabosse places a curse upon the child. However, instead of being cursed to die young at 16, as the evil fairy believes, the Lilac Fairy intervenes and invokes Aurora to sleep for 100 years. As everyone is put to sleep by the Lilac Fairy, the woodland scenery emerges and takes over every aspect of the opulent staging. It is a truly magical moment and one that lingers in my memory hours after watching the performance.
Act Two begins with a change of costume; a nice nod to the hundred years that have passed. We are greeted with a flamboyant Prince Florimund (Mathias Dingman) whose jetés announce him as the hero. Florimund dreams of dancing with Aurora and the fairies, which is a wonderful way to introduce the characters to each other. The awakening scene at the beginning of Act Two is performed with tenderness by both soloists. Hirata’s newly awakened princess is soft and delicate. The Entr’acte symphonique (Le Sommeil / The Sleep) pas de deux between Hirata and Dingman creates a delicately balanced scene announcing his love for her and allows Hirata to develop her reciprocal love. Her partnership with Dingman appears effortless; it is an intimate moment that contrasts well with the opulence and ensemble-led earlier scenes. Equally, the violin solo reflects the tenderness of the scene. As Act Two progresses into Act Three, Hirata presents Aurora as a defiant and enlightened princess who has grown up and fallen in love.
Act Three seems to break away from the plot and the battle between good and evil. Here, court dances take place and we are greeted with a series of magical creatures who dance and celebrate Florimund and Aurora’s wedding celebration. The pas de deux between Bluebird (Lachlan Monaghan) and the Enchanted Princess (Yaoqian Shang) is a wondrous foregrounding of the fairy tale and ramping up the theme of the power of love. Puss in Boots (Kit Holder) and the White Cat (Yvette Knight) are engaging if a little odd. Aurora is the titular Sleeping Beauty, but it is the beauty of the set, costumes and lighting that set this production apart from the likes of Coppélia. Each scene is beautifully lit by Mark Jonathan, who adds texture and layers to the story telling.
Having previously watched, and enjoyed Mathew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, and more recently his Cinderella at Birmingham Hippodrome, I must admit that I have a soft spot for the classical repertoire.
And although for me Wright’s production of The Sleeping Beauty misses the more cutting-edge choreography, a modern twist, a sultry Gothic setting, or dramatic acting clout, it maintains a firm place in the canon of ballet and deserves to continue touring well into the future.
Birmingham Royal Ballet presents The Sleeping Beauty at the Birmingham Hippodrome, running until Saturday 24th February. For direct show information, including venue details, production times and online ticket sales, visit www.birminghamhippodrome.com/calendar/birmingham-royal-ballet-sleeping-beauty
For more from Birmingham Royal Ballet, visit www.brb.org.uk
For more from the Birmingham Hippodrome, including full event listings and online ticket sales, visit www.birminghamhippodrome.com