by Kate Snedeker
January 4, 2008 -- Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Scotland
Sometimes it seems like you can never escape "The Nutcracker" – close your eyes in Act 3 of "Sleeping Beauty" and the music is so similar that you don't know whether it's Clara or Aurora on the stage. Fortunately Scottish Ballet's new production of the classic fairy tale ballet sweeps aside all the holiday memories and leaps with abandon into the New Year. "Sleeping Beauty" is the most balletic of Ashley Page's full-length creations for the company, a production that sails with panache through the Prologue and part of Act 1, then stumbles over an overly complicated scenario and gutted Petipa choreography to an unsatisfying end.
Page and his artistic crew are innovative when it comes to staging their productions, but they seem to have forgotten that stories like "Cinderella" and "Sleeping Beauty" are fairy tales. What makes a fairy tale a fairy tale is the suspension of reality and the 'happily ever after', so when you play with those factors, the magic can disappear all too quickly. And that's where this "Sleeping Beauty" loses its spark.
The story is initially set in 1830 Russia, a period, as the program informs, when there was great interest in the fairy world and ghost stories. Jarkko Lehmus, the company's resident 'father' and Victoria Willard are the protective royal parents of Claire Robertson's tall Aurora. I have not seen a 'a traditional' version of the ballet in many years, so I don't know how much of the fairy solos were altered, but all were pleasantly danced if crowded by the large glasshouse set on stage left. Tomomi Sato as "Song" and Lorena Fernandez Saez as "Wisdom" were standouts.
The fairies’ brightly coloured tutus by set and costume designer Antony McDonald suited the various personalities, but the puffed pants and codpieces looked most unfortunate on the Elfin Princes. Scottish Ballet finally has a corps of male dancers to be very proud of – but must they always be hidden behind such garish costumes? Carabosse's (Limor Ziv) two deformed daughters were also costume victims. The confection of black lace for Carabosse was reminiscent of previous Carabosse costumes, but her two daughters can only be described as the love children of the pig-nosed people from Dr. Who and either a Ferengi or Vulcan from Star Trek. Amusing at first, but their antics soon grew wearisome and detracted from the story.
"Sleeping Beauty" reaches a peak in the early part of the sumptuous Act 1 – Aurora's 16th birthday party. In this version, the vivid hues of the ladies' full-length ball gowns brought a wonderful accent to the waltz – the deeper undersides flashing up with each spinning step. Yet this waltz belonged to the princes – Christopher Harrison, Tama Barry, Paul Liburd and Gregory Dean – a quartet of emotive and vibrant dancers. In the later years of his career, Liburd brings a special depth and elegance to his dancing. Every transition is smooth, not a rough edge to be found.
Despite the high quality of his men, and the centuries of tradition, Page inexplicably decided to gut the Rose Adagio by leaving out the iconic series of supported balances that establish Aurora's growing maturity. Instead, we are left with a watered down series of lifts and turns that are superficially pretty, but don't match the surge of Tchaikovsky's score. An equally egregious omission in Act 2 is that of the Bluebird's famous solo with the brise voles across the diagonal. Why stay relatively close to the traditional ballet, keep all but two of the key female roles en pointe and keep the original score, only to gut the passages of ballet that are most vital to it? My first instinct is to wonder whether the company's dancers were not (consistently) capable of doing the choreography. It may well not be true, but to make such omissions begs the question.
Ironically Page might have better justified playing with the choreography if he'd made the whole production less traditional as he did with his previous productions. Certainly, I think a few less pointe shoes might have been preferable in Acts 1, 2, and 3, in dances where high heels would have been more appropriate with the women's dresses and likely more comfortable for the women than having to balance in high demi pointe. Additionally, I think the gorgeous 1940s dresses in Act 3 would have hung more naturally if the women were standing in heels.
The ballet begins to unravel in Act 2, when Page plays liberally with the story line. Instead of saving the fairy tale characters for the wedding entertainment, he sprinkles them in the forest for the prince to encounter along the way to Sleeping Beauty. And we lose the classic Puss n' Boots, his sultry female puss et al only to be invaded by the worst of Disney schlock – Snow White, Cinderella and Belle, the latter two of whom are not readily identifiable to those in the audience not saturated with the worst of recent Disney.
Then we have Carabosse and daughters running around creating havoc, Sleeping Beauty dancing a pas de deux with the Prince before she is awakened and the Prince dancing an extended pas de deux with the Bluebird. Confused? As the usher I overheard on my way out of the performance said, "I didn't get the third [second and third] act". Neither did I. By the time the Prince finally got around to giving the all-important kiss, the fairy tale was completely muddled.
"Sleeping Beauty" works as a ballet because there's no complicated story – princess pricks finger, good fairy commutes death sentence to century of sleep, prince wakes princess with enchanted kiss, they get married and everyone lives happily ever after. As a result, there's not much storytelling the ballet has to cover, leaving a lot of time for good, old-fashioned (or newer fashioned) dance and extravagant costumes. Page tries to play too much with the story, and ends up losing everyone somewhere in the dark woods.
In particular, the audience seemed befuddled by the Bluebird-Prince duet…isn't the prince after the princess? Usually all it takes is a little help from the Lilac Fairy to get the Prince to do his bit. Most out of place is the reconciliation between the Lilac Fairy and Carabosse (twin sisters in this version). The whole point of the Prince's kiss is to break the spell, and in doing so destroy Carabosse and the evil she represents for good. Schlocky, but without magic, a fairytale is pretty hollow. Page's bit of reconciliation reality removes us from the fairytale world. Call me coldhearted, but after Aurora wakes up, all I want is the fairy tale 'happily ever after'.
The final act however, tidies up the loose ends and provides some of the most original moments of the production. Casting aside the traditional fairytale wedding entertainment, Page chooses to match his fairytale dames with Aurora's quartet of princes, each of whom dance a pas de deux in a 1946 ballroom. The 1940s sleek silk gowns are McDonald's finest creations, though I didn't think the maid in a barely bottom covering dress was particularly realistic (though oh so cheekily fun, as flounced by Grace Hoy). Snow White appears with a very clever poison-apple headpiece, but the best of the quartet was a sexy Red Riding Hood in a hooded red silk gown. Danced with just the right amount of cheeky, but sultry spice by Sophie Laplane, she had her 'wolf' (Paul Liburd) panting after her.
Adam Blyde's delightful electric-blue suited Bluebird and Tomomi's Lady Bluebird were the highlight of the third act, though the omission of the famous brise voles left a gap in their pas de deux. The pair are superb dancers, but for those familiar with the ballet, much of their dancing was likely lost in unfulfilled anticipation of the Bluebird's signature solo. Page's choreography did not clash with Tchaikovsky's music, and was suited to the 1946 setting, but did not evoke the fluttering of the Bluebird so memorably as Petipa's steps.
The lead roles were danced by Robertson and Erik Cavallari. The qualities that made Robertson so perfect as Cinderella make her less appealing as Aurora. While one of the finest dancers in the company, and capable of all but the quickest choreography, she lacks the initial innocence and youth of the 16 year old Aurora. There's simply too much experience and 'adult' in her physique and face. I wonder if this might have been the time to let one of the younger talents in the company have a chance. Cavallari was as fairytale a 19th/20th century prince as the Scottish Ballet has, partnering Robertson with great care. His dancing is never forced, but he's much more impressive in jumps than in turns or stretched lines. But if the prince is a good kisser and a good pas de deux partner, what else matters in a fairy tale?
Despite its flaws, "Sleeping Beauty" is Ashley Page's best yet full length for this up and coming company. In not quite succeeding, Page is in good company – the Royal Ballet and American Ballet Theatre have fallen short with "Sleeping Beauty" in recent years. I look forward to the next production, for which Page is finally relinquishing choreographic control: a new "Romeo and Juliet" by Krzysztof Pastor.
Nicholas Kok conducted a superb Scottish Ballet Orchestra.
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