United Kingdom Tchaikovsky: Peter Wright and Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty: Dancers of Birmingham Royal Ballet and Royal Ballet Sinfonia, conducted by Koen Kessels. Sadler’s Wells, London, 18.10.2013. (JPr)
Choreography: Marius Petipa and Peter Wright
Production: Peter Wright
Designs: Philip Prowse
Princess Aurora: Nao Sakuma
Prince Florimund: Chi Cao
Carabosse: Samara Downs
Enchanted Princess: Natasha Oughtred
Bluebird: Tzu-Chao Chou
Lilac Fairy: Jenna Roberts
There is very little that needs to said to introduce the story of The Sleeping Beauty and that goes to for the ballet version that as Gerald Dowler writes in his programme note ‘is Tchaikovsky’s finest and most sophisticated score for dance, a glorious cascade of brilliant musical ideas woven into a rich tapestry of sound that perfectly complements the jewels of Petipa’s creativity and which represents a new departure in the relationship between music and choreography’. My only comment here is it is time Wagner’s influence on Tchaikovsky was more fully researched as it cannot be a coincidence that he attended the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876 and, for instance, his 1877 Swan Lake includes the character of Siegfried(!) and a bewitched swan (from Lohengrin) and this 1890 The Sleeping Beauty involves the Prince going on a journey to awaken the Princess with a kiss (somewhat reminiscent of what happens between Siegfried and Brünnhilde in the Ring).
But I digress, Peter Wright’s 1984 production for Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet (later to become Birmingham Royal Ballet) makes a welcome visit home. He keeps the traditional choreography, including Fyodor Lopokov’s variation in the prologue which is usually danced by the Lilac Fairy (now just a much diminished mime role) but given now to the Fairy of Joy (Yijing Zhang). Wright made a new waltz for Act I, devised new solos for the Prince and Countess in Act II and turned the panorama music before the awakening into a danced episode. There is a pas de deux at the end of this act for Prince Florimund and Princess Aurora to a violin solo that is usually an entr’acte. In Act III there is a new pas de quatre to the Jewel Fairies’ music where he incorporated Petipa’s steps for the first female dancer’s variation and Frederick Ashton’s for the second.
I have seen several versions of The Sleeping Beauty over a number of decades but this was the first time I have encountered this one by Peter Wright and I cannot remember ever being so enraptured by what remains – even after nearly 30 years – a wonderfully theatrical, magical staging that reveals – and revels in – the power of classical ballet to enchant those watching. There is a stunning recreation of a French court during the Baroque era in Philip Prowse’s ornate costumes and opulently solid, golden, set (effectively lit by Mark Jonathan) that seems to make the Sadler’s Wells stage seem much wider and deeper than it actually may be.
There is some wonderfully clear story telling from fairy-tale characters who seem perfectly human. There is quite a lot going on and not far short of three hours of dance but it never outstays its welcome. There is the usual hustle and bustle in the prologue but the narrative never seems to stall and I never had my usual reaction that people were just faffing around and I was becoming anxious for the story – proper – to start. The idea that the good fairy (Lilac) is confronting the evil one (Carabosse) is never usually dramatized so clearly and, another highlight, was how later in Act I there are some small observational details admirably employed to introduce the Four Princes during the waltz. Again the build up to the grand pas de deux passed more quickly than it has done in some other versions. The pas de quatre (part Petipa, part Ashton, part Wright) and the storybook figures were typically charming, as their contributions rarely fail to captivate.
The Royal Ballet Sinfonia were on great form and were conducted with great attention for orchestral detail by BRB’s music director, Koen Kessels; they did full justice to Tchaikovsky’s magnificent score whilst accompanying the dancers with care. This continues to highlight the improvement to the playing of ballet music that has been evident in recent years for most of the major companies.
Performances were uniformly fine but not perhaps outstanding. Starting with the non-dancers, there was a suitably regal King and Queen (Dominic Antonucci and Callie Roberts), befuddled Catalabutte (Jonathan Payn), scenery-chewing and demonic Carabosse (Samara Downs) and Jenna Roberts, the embodiment of goodliness as The Lilac Fairy. Throughout the evening all involved as the fairies and their cavaliers, the attendants of Carabosse or The Lilac Fairy, the Garland Dance and the pas de quatre danced with great freshness, commitment, poise, precision, speed and attack. Generally the sense of fun and enjoyment everyone had in being involved shone out to the audience where it was a joy to see people of all ages present.
Tzu-Chao Chou and Natasha Oughtred danced prettily as The Bluebird and the Enchanted Princess without the flamboyant bravura of some I have seen. This comment also applies somewhat to Chi Cao’s rather stoic Prince Florimund and Nao Sakuma, equally petite, but more radiant Princess Aurora. Chi Cao is a very tidy and lyrical dancer and has the nobility of a Prince but with perhaps too little of the ardour required. Nao Sakuma effortlessly overcame the demands of the Rose Adagio even if her suitors seemed to be in even more close attention than usual: she had all the expressiveness and vulnerability for the young girl she must be in Act I, later there was a suitable Giselle-Like coldness for the vision scene, an awakening passion at the end of Act II and a visible joy during Act III.
Peter Wright’s The Sleeping Beauty visits Sunderland and Plymouth soon. Do go if you have not seen it – or again if you have. If I had to give it a star rating it would be very nearly 5 out of 5!
For more about the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s forthcoming performances www.brb.org.uk.