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English National Ballet

'The Sleeping Beauty'

by Cassandra

January 18, 2006 -- London Coliseum

English National Ballet has struck gold with this lovely, new to the UK, version of “The Sleeping Beauty”. Originally produced by Kenneth MacMillan for American Ballet Theatre, this is a very traditional production, with just a few choreographic changes by MacMillan in the first and last acts. The costumes are by MacMillan’s frequent collaborator, Nicholas Georgiadis, but with new sets by Peter Farmer, and happily the styles of the two designers blend very well together with no visual clashes.

The Prologue looks as if it’s set in a particularly far-flung, leafy corner of the gardens at Versailles in this 17th century setting, though Carabosse, when she makes her entrance, looks inspired by portraits of the virgin queen. The costumes for the non-dancers seem to cover a longer period than 116 years I thought, but in general it all looked good to me.   

I wasn’t terribly enamoured of the fairy transporter in Act 2 that was supposed to be a boat but appeared to me more like an oversized bath tub -- nothing magical at all.  In fact, not much was made of Florimund’s journey to Aurora’s palace, and an opportunity for a voyage of discovery was missed. Other than that the entire production was very easy on the eye.

Back in the 1970’s, MacMillan produced a version of this work for the Royal Ballet; it followed the medieval production by Ashton and Wright and lasted in the repertoire for only a brief spell (rather like the last RB Beauty). Although it was a more than serviceable production, it didn’t please the critics and rather than give it a facelift and alter those details that didn’t quite gel, it was dumped in favour of yet another version -- how history repeats itself! This later re-think is a more balanced production and deserves a lengthy stay in ENB’s repertoire.

So it all looked pretty good, but how was it danced? Well, the line up of fairies in the Prologue was quite impressive, with sound performances from all five dancers. The Lilac Fairy was danced by Fernando Oliveira, an unexpected piece of casting as this role traditionally goes to a taller girl. Perhaps that’s not just convention, as the breadth of movement of the solo doesn’t really suit a shorter girl, though Oliveira had an air of sweetness and compassion that fitted the part. Her wicked fairy opponent was Maria Ribó Parés making a glamorous and malevolent Carabosse with a real sense of drama emanating from both.

The attractive souvenir programme that accompanies these performances gives the reader a very helpful guide to understanding the mimed sections, particularly those from the prologue, and one of the most admirable features of this production was the clarity of all the mimed passages. The only jarring note here was struck by the rather fussy and annoying posturing of Catalabutte played by former Royal Ballet virtuoso Michael Coleman; a toning down exercise would be in order here.

Act 1 sprang a surprise; a gorgeous garland dance of springtime freshness choreographed by MacMillan that was a timely reminder that MacMillan wasn’t just a master of dark passions, but could create bright sparkling choreography equally well when he put his mind to it.

Of course the heart of the ballet is the Sleeping Beauty herself, in this instance Erina Takahashi, and what a wonderful Aurora she made! Seemingly tiny and of perfect proportions, Ms. Takahashi is ideally suited to the role, technically proficient and blessed with a delicacy of manner. I did, however, note a slight unease at her entry, but after dancing the best Rose Adagio I’ve seen in a long time, she shed any fears the role might still hold for her and blossomed.

The vision scene was graced by an excellent corps de ballet, and in this scene Takahashi really came into her own as a graceful but unattainable ideal. As the prince, Cesar Morales was something of a weak link, as he hasn’t yet acquired the noble bearing the role requires: hopefully this will come, but in the last act I admired his easy turns and crisp pirouettes.

The final act divertissements were well performed by all, though I miss Cinderella and her prince, always part of Russian last acts but not favoured by British producers. The final choreographic change was ‘Florestan and his Sisters’. If there was one role Kenneth MacMillan was acclaimed for in his dancing career it was that of Florestan, so I was surprised to see the familiar pas de trois passed over in favour of a quintet of gold and diamond couple plus three girls as silver -- unusual.

The final pas de deux was quite beautiful with Ms. Takahashi dancing the exact same steps I remember performed by Fonteyn decades ago without needless embellishments that have crept in over the years. All in all this was a performance to cherish.

The orchestra sounded good under conductor Nigel Gaynor, who kept an even tempo throughout; though I heard a couple of odd sounds from the woodwind in the Prologue, I suppose everyone has an off night now and then.

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