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Northern Ballet Theatre

'A Sleeping Beauty Tale'

by David Mead

March 13, 2007 -- Theatre Royal, Nottingham, UK

Most fairytales take place in forests and woods for good reason.  In their time, these were the unknown, places where magical things could happen and magical beings lived.  Today, the unknown is space and the possibility that somewhere out there are other beings.  Add to this Artistic Director David Nixon’s long interest in science fiction and it’s not so surprising that when he and dramaturge Patricia Doyle were looking for a new setting for “Sleeping Beauty”, they set it in a different time and world.

Essentially, the story revolves around the Blue Planet, a peaceful paradise based on respect and the pursuit of wisdom, and its neighbour, the aggressive Red Planet, a wasteland devastated by war and abuse of its resources.  In a scene taken directly from George Bernard Shaw’s “Back to Methuselah”, Aurora is born to the rulers of the Blue Planet from a golden sphere.  She is on the verge of adulthood, birth and childhood both seeming to be things of the past, and is already destined to be the subject of a political marriage to Korak, Prince of the Red Planet, party to a treaty between the two worlds.  Needless to say, things go awry immediately.  Korak kills his father, who set all this up, and kills Aurora as they dance on their wedding day before waging an inter-planetary war in which the Blue Planet is all but destroyed.  But Aurora is rescued by the ‘evolved beings’, strange unworldly characters who spend most of the ballet suspended above the action, floating in huge rings.  They put Aurora to sleep until she can be rescued by Adameter, a former love who is a refugee from the war, and the planet can be renewed.

All good stuff, and you can see why Nixon thought it would work.  And indeed, in many ways as a story, it does.  It’s certainly easy to follow.  There are, however, problems with the way the story, choreography and music work together.  The choreography is generally light and easy on the eye, but lacks depth.  Only one section from Petipa’s version, a short Aurora solo, remains.  Nixon has choreographed some very pleasant ensemble scenes especially, but there seems to be very little for the dancers to really sink their teeth in to.  Georgina May as Aurora was neat, fluid, and gave a very expressive performance.  David Paul Kierce’s Korak, on the other hand, came over as very stiff.  I know he was supposed to be a nasty piece of work, but with his carrot coloured floor mop of a hair-do and stiff, at times almost wooden posturing, it was difficult to take him even remotely seriously.

For the music, John Pryce-Jones put together a score that combines the familiar Tchaikovsky, albeit seriously chopped up and moved around, some Mussogorsky (“Night on a Bare Mountain”), Part “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten” and a lot of Rimsky-Korsakov (“Suite from The Invisible City of Kitezh”).  The Tchaikovsky all comes in Acts I and II and the big problem is that it comes with baggage.  It was very noticeable how much better the opening of Act III worked when the burden was finally thrown off.  The act has other issues though.  As Adameter struggles to find Aurora before the planet’s doomsday arrives, Nixon turns from simply telling the story to delivering a moral message and a sermon about where things could lead.  All heavy, serious stuff, and potentially good material, but the production just isn’t up to it.  The whole thing cries out for a lot more intensity, especially at the end, which could benefit from a powerful duet.  Instead and almost before you know it, it’s over with barely a whimper.

Don’t get me wrong:  In many ways it is an enjoyable evening.  The ballet is so far from the “Sleeping Beauty” audiences are used to that few are going to take offence, though I’m sure there will be mutterings from some about the treatment of Tchaikovsky’s music.  It clearly draws on the familiar Perrault fairy tale.  The parallels with his and Petipa’s “Beauty” are there for all to see.  Both ballets take place in formalised societies, involve mystical beings and the fight between good and evil, but “Sleeping Beauty” this is not.

The Nottingham audience certainly lapped it up.  The production is helped along by Jerome Kaplan’s designs that clearly seem to have taken their inspiration from pictures in science fiction comics and novels of the middle of the last century with a bit of Star Trek thrown in for good measure.  The set clearly gives a sense of being in another world and the giant man eating a red and black spider the size of a house that appears in Act III is an invention of genius.

Sometimes dotty, sometimes serious; sometimes “Sleeping Beauty”, sometimes not.  This is a ballet that can’t quite make up its mind what it is.  It’s as if Nixon has tried to have the best of both worlds (no pun intended) but to some extent has fallen between the two.  Send for James T.   Kirk.  He would have sorted it out before you could say “beam me up.”

Northern Ballet Theatre’s tour continues nationwide with “The Three Musketeers” and “Romeo and Juliet”.  London-based audiences can catch “A Sleeping Beauty Tale” at Woking in June.

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