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Royal Ballet - 'The Sleeping Beauty'

by Ana Abad-Carles

May 18, 2006 -- Royal Opera House, London

The new/old “Sleeping Beauty” the Royal Ballet has produced for their 75th Anniversary has all the traditional ingredients: something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue, pink, lilac and all the pastel colours of the rainbow…

The idea to revive Oliver Messel’s production from 1946 was interesting in a way.  There were strong elements in that staging that seemed necessary after Natalia Makarova’s ill- advised production in 2003 (substituting for the hideous one Anthony Dowell had produced before her). The need to revive a choreographic text that was so strongly associated with the company obviously influenced the decision to go back to the production that had marked the beginning of its golden era.
However, choreographic archaeology seldom works on the stage and the resulting production the Royal Ballet presented on 18 May 2006, had all the hit and miss elements that can be expected from such attempts.

While it is true that the scenery followed Messel’s originals, the same cannot be said of the costumes, created by Peter Farmer. They lacked distinctiveness and vividness, something that the old Messel production definitely had. Though not all the original costumes would be agreeable to the eye nowadays, there were certainly some that could still have served their purpose. Even if the cut of the costumes had been altered to suit the tastes of today’s audiences, the vivid colours of the
originals could have been retained. Instead, what we see is a collection of pastel colours that, though unobstrusive to the choreography, add little colour to a wonderfully chromatic score.

As for the choreographic text, it is true that the Royal Ballet has gone back to their old reading of the choreography and this is something we all appreciate.  However, and this is my biggest objection to the new production, it is not just the steps that made up the Royal Ballet’s “Sleeping Beauty” unique, especially in clear opposition to the Russian versions, but the whole rhythm and tempo of the musical reading. The English “Beauty” used to be danced in allegro and staccatto rhythm, in total contrast with the adagio, legato reading of the Russian versions.  What we have now is English choreographic text performed with Russian tempos and it does not work.

As a case in point, the Prologue has lost its unique dramatic impulse. The Fairies’ variations are performed at much slower tempos than they used to be. Not only that, the performances I saw were far from distinctive both in character and technical achievement. The Lilac Fairy variation used to be a favourite of mine to illustrate the differences in tempo and character of both Russian and English
version. As it was performed on the night I attended, the differences were almost nonexistent. Carabosse’s entrance and monologue, then dialogue with the Lilac Fairy, lacked the dramatic impact that the company used to excel at, especially when Monica Mason herself played the evil character. Hers was a lesson in clarity of purpose, self explanatory mime and dramatic coherence. As it appears now, those elements are missing. Elizabeth McGorian was good, but not outstanding, and my
memories of the old Royal Ballet’s Carabosse are of outstanding interpretations.

On the night I attended, Tamara Rojo danced Princess Aurora. She danced the Rose Adagio beautifully, but then she lost all sense of characterisation and seemed to be determined to make a point about the fact that this ballet is about the danse d’ecole. In fact she made her point so strongly that she forgot to smile until the last bars of the Coda in Act III. She performed the choreography beautifully, but there was no soul in it, which is surprising, given that Rojo is renowned for her
dramatic qualities. Moreover, we all know now that technique has changed and the number of pirouettes ballerinas can achieve in their solos has increased... still I would appreciate if the ballerinas would stick to the amount of music Tchaikovsky offers them instead of demanding halts in the music to fit in their multiple turns.

Rojo’s Prince was Federico Bonelli, who performed correctly, but was once again not very interested in dramatic detail.

Mainly, the new production flows, but it does not produce the dramatic excitement that the old versions used to have.

The Vision Scene also shows inconsistencies in its reconstruction. While we get one of the court dances that used to be omitted, we have now lost the elegant Minuet and Farandole. The Prince’s solo that Ashton choreographed has been revived, though, and if only for that, it was worth watching.

As for the new elements, Christopher Wheeldon has choreographed the Garland Dance.  I much preferred the Ashton version that was featured in the de Valois version prior to Dowell’s. Ashton’s dance was a joy to watch, simple and effective in preparing the audience for Aurora’s entrance. Wheeldon’s is just too ambitious in its brevity and does not add anything to the scene.

Dowell’s contribution to the new version is in Carabosse’s attendants’ dance and the court dances in the third act. Again, not remarkable additions, but unobstrusive at least.

The best dancing in the evening came from Laura Morera as Princess Florine in the Bluebird Pas de Deux. She alone seemed to understand what the unique style that the English used to have was all about. She was respectful with the tempos, she made dramatic sense and she performed her choreographic text with sincerity and understanding.

Another welcome restoration came with the Florestan Pas de Trois, though the performance by Isabelle McKeekan, David Makhateli and Lauren Cuthbertson was somehow dispirited. I regretted the substitution of the wonderful Sapphire variation with the old Diamond one, but I guess it is difficult to please everybody.

The new/old production of the Royal Ballet is a brave attempt at restoring a tradition and identity that the company seemed to have lost. However, it fails in its integrity by not going deeper into the intrinsic values of a choreographic text that goes beyond the performance of certain steps. It is a relief to see the new generation of Royal Ballet dancers performing the old choreography, but
without the meaning that gave those steps their life, the result falls somehow short.

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