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English National Ballet

'The Sleeping Beauty'

by David Mead

October 17, 2012 -- Milton Keynes Theatre, Milton Keynes, UK

It seemed nerves were everywhere. There were certainly a few more wobbles that usual. Mind you, as if “Sleeping Beauty” was not tricky enough to dance, this was not only the first night of the season and the first performance under new Artistic Director Tamara Rojo, but Rojo herself was dancing Aurora.

To say that principal role dancing artistic directors are a rarity is something of an understatement. There are very few examples of it, and even fewer of it working. In Britain it hasn’t happened for over 50 years, and probably with reason. In many ways it’s akin to being a player-manager in a Premiership football team. There are all sorts of conflicts. Simply from a time perspective, combining the two roles is difficult enough, without the obvious problems caused by being part of the team and the boss, inside but outside.

For now though, Rojo seems to be coping well, although even she looked a little less assured than usual. Her dance didn’t look as easy or flow as we have come to expect. Mind you, she wasn’t helped by conductor Gavin Sutherland. There were times when the music seemed so slow that I started to wonder if he too had been put under Carabosse’s spell. There were a few wobbles during those fiendish balances in the Rose Adagio, and a couple of other less than smooth coming downs off pointe too, but there was also no doubting the extra radiance she brought to this already ravishing Kenneth MacMillan interpretation of the Petipa classic.

Given the few occasions they have danced together, Rojo’s partnership with young Vadim Muntagirov was remarkable. There was a connection, and level of understanding and togetherness that usually only comes after many performances. I’ll swear I actually saw them smile at each other in a way the suggested they really liked dancing together.

Such naturalness is one of Muntagirov’s greatest assets. There aren’t too many leading men who can manage to look princely and yet remain someone who can express emotion in a genuine, unaffected way. He has a natural, somewhat understated grace about him. Maybe it’s something to do with his youth and relative inexperience, but whatever, let’s hope it’s something he never loses.

Quite what Daria Klimentová thought of all this, who knows. Since Muntagirov burst on to the scene a couple of years ago, they have been the must see partnership. Now, here she was as the Lilac Fairy, not only watching on, but quite literally in terms of the story pointing him at his new lady.

It was once far more commonplace for Carabosse to be danced by a man than is now the case. That tradition survives gloriously here though, where the tall James Streeter put in a superb debut performance in the role. With his ginger hair and in his voluptuous black and purple Tudor dress and ruff, his nasty, snarling Carabosse was quite Cruella de Vil, and minus any humour. He was strong and arrogant, dominating the stage whenever he appeared. I particularly like the way MacMillan keeps the character involved, his duel with Klimentová, about as far at the other end of the goodness scale as you can get, even spilling into the awakening scene.

Elsewhere, the rest of the company gave their all. Of the many soloists, Shiori Kase was a sparkling Princess Florine. With her always assured technique and clarity, she is surely a star of the future. Unfortunately, her partner Laurent Liotardo made a rather less assured opening as the Bluebird, although his later batterie was clean and sharp.

Throughout, MacMillan tells the story with great clarity. His choreographic additions are always well structured and quite delightful, especially the garland dance. How nice too to have a vision scene where there is actually some dance. He also avoids the subsequent interminable journey through the forest of some versions.

The dancing is topped off by Nicholas Georgiadis’ sumptuous costumes. We come to expect exquisiteness from the fairies’ tutus, but what is particularly striking here is the level of detail in the dress of those at court, whether it’s the early 17th-century finery of the Prologue or the more puritan affairs of Act III. The opulence of the costumes is emphasised by Peter Farmer’s relatively unpretentious set, full of dark green hanging vines, and that's before the forest takes over. Where it really wins is the view into the distance, which is incredibly atmospheric. There’s a suggestion of his forest being on the edge of some mist covered, slightly mysterious heath.

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