Choreographer: Marius Petipa
A ballet with a serious pedigree, The Sleeping Beauty was chosen to reopen The Royal Ballet in 1946 after World War II. A story of love defying the odds, the production sounded a note of optimism when it was needed the most.
The Sleeping Beauty is firmly embedded in the world of fairytale, and this production makes the decision to temper a landscape of fairies and storybook characters with real hits of emotion. This is ballet in its purest form. We find ourselves in Act I, at a Royal celebration. It is Princess Aurora’s christening, and she is being given gifts by visiting fairies. We are also introduced to the Lilac Fairy (Gina Storm-Jensen) who becomes our guide. A sunny, reassuring presence, Storm-Jensen gains our confidence from the start.
The happy occasion takes a sudden dark turn, as another fairy arrives. Carabosse has not been invited, and she does not take kindly to being snubbed. She bursts onto stage and curses the baby girl. She gives Aurora a spindle, saying that one day she will prick her finger on it and die. The Lilac Fairy softens the curse. Aurora will not die. If she pricks her finger, she will instead fall into a deep sleep. Only a Prince’s kiss will wake her.
The Sleeping Beauty is delivered not only with military precision, but a lightness that keeps the choreography feeling fresh. Adapting earlier work from legendary choreographer Frederick Ashton, this ballet has encouraged its leads to develop their characters. To illustrate the point, as Carabosse, Kristen McNally gives us serious Maleficent vibes. Bringing a dark glamour to the role, she cuts through the sugar to leave us with a bitter aftertaste. In keeping the classical repertoire alive, personality is key.
Following Aurora’s discovery of the spindle, we fast forward 100 years. Out walking with his clique, Prince Florimund (Federico Bonelli) is the Playboy Prince, already tired of casual flirtations. He is ready to fall in love, and the Lilac Fairy spots her opportunity.
Bonelli is less Action Hero, more Romantic Poet, and it’s a choice that absolutely works for this ballet. As the Lilac Fairy draws Florimund in, with a dreamy Giselle-like vision of Aurora, Bonelli conveys the Prince’s sense of yearning – he is mesmerised.
While Bonelli gives preference to sensitivity over power, as Aurora, Fumi Kaneko also goes against type. Kaneko’s technique is easy and smooth. Sure-footed and always in control, Kaneko’s Beauty is no delicate flower. Aceing the Rose Adagio (a rite of passage for every female soloist), Kaneko’s performance is full of confidence. This is a modern girl, ready for adventure. As the Prince and Princess find each other, Bonelli and Kaneko dance with a slow-burn sensuality.
In staging classical ballet, the question is whether we give preference to the canon over contemporary innovation. As well as classics being safe bets, there is an argument – and this production makes it – for keeping tradition alive. Not unchanged and under glass, but reimagined. The best choreography gives dancers room to breathe, and by creating an emotionally resonant Sleeping Beauty, a new layer is added to characters we thought we already knew.
The sense of satisfaction we feel in watching something familiar is heightened at times of crisis. Sleeping Beauty wraps itself around us, bringing comfort. It may not have the psychological depth of Giselle or Swan Lake, but The Sleeping Beauty remains a favourite because we know what to expect, and we get it every time. Tradition – with a twist.
Available here until 7 August 2020