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English National Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty – The Mayflower, Southampton

Composer: Pyotr Tchaikovsky

Conductor: Gavin Sutherland

Reviewer: Ann Bawtree



Derived, but only slightly, from the original of twenty-fire years ago, this sumptuous production charms with not only its sparkling choreography but also the gorgeous costumes and elegant stage settings. It would be a perfect ballet for the smallest of children were it not so long. Apparently the original 1890 version could run for four hours with intermissions. Even this one lasts for three.

The traditional tale of the beautiful Princess, cursed by a wicked fairy but redeemed by a good one, has a long folkloric history and appears in the collection of tales compiled by the Brothers Grimm. In this version not only the Princess Aurora’s parents survive the dormant century but so do the court and all her companions, which neatly avoids possible causes of the night terrors. To make the wedding feast even more cheerful and appealing to the young several other nursery figures appear. In this production these are limited to Puss in Boots and the Bluebird with their partners together with Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, although there are others which can be added to the collection of fairies and jewels who come to celebrate the wedding.

The music was written at the request of the director of the Imperial Russian Ballet and was first performed at the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, since when it has become a firm favourite with lovers of classical ballet. Marking its importance in the repertoire is the fact that it was chosen as the first post war production at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden.

It is a most strenuous work for all concerned. Not only do the principal characters in the story have exhausting demands made of them but also all the supporting characters as well. Many of the divertissement for the corps de ballet are precise and nippy, like the dance of the cygnets in Swan Lake, requiring much rehearsal to be effective. The same must be true of the Garland Dance in Act One, one of Kenneth MacMillan’s additions to the original and fraught with opportunities for disaster.

The sets are simple yet give a satisfactory impression of opulence for the scenes at the palace with a rather sinister forest in between. The use of dry ice enhances the atmosphere of mystery although it did sometimes appear rather suddenly and from one particular spot. The Mayflower also appears to have a somewhat unforgiving stage, making the dancers foot work seem less than ethereal at times.

As with music, it is quite often the pauses in between the action that is most telling. The length of the pause after a piece of music has finished is as much a part of the whole as the first note. The famous pauses in The Sleeping Beauty, of course, are those in the Rose Adagio of Act one, where the Princess receives a rose from each of her four suitors. It would be interesting to know how much of the length of the pause is attributable to the dancer and how much to the conductor.

Playing and conducting for ballet is a very special medium and, as with the sixty seven musicians in the pit at Southampton, is a close collaboration between all concerned. Their contribution to this splendid evening’s entertainment along with that of the costume department, the prop constructors and the wig makers cannot be underestimated.


Runs until 2 March 2013



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