Review: The Royal Ballet - The Sleeping Beauty - Royal Opera House:

Performance: 21 December 2016—14 March 2017
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Tuesday 21 February 2017


Performance reviewed: 16 February 2017

A double-dose of The Royal Ballet’s signature production was just the tonic for a cold and blustery February afternoon, in London. This vivacious revival of the Russian masterpiece that came to define the emergence of British ballet in the 1940s, and thereafter, is a delightful, warm, colourful, vibrant, feel-good marvel; all the more so when you throw in a pair of debuts for the two fastest-rising British stars.

So it was for this Wednesday matinee with Francesca Hayward – fresh from being named, just last week, as the Best Female Dancer at the UK National Dance Awards – and Alexander Campbell (a nominee in the Best Male category), both further embellishing their stellar careers with respective debuts as the Princess Aurora and Prince Florimund. If their director, Kevin O’Hare, had chosen a 1-30pm start on a Wednesday afternoon as a means of protecting them from a mass of attention, a full house and the attendance of all the leading critics foiled the plan for any such softly, softly introduction!

It mattered not since these were assured performances in both the leading roles. Hayward portrayed the vulnerable, child-like innocence in Aurora that I have not seen since the early career of Alina Cojocaru, on this same stage. She fought against the early challenge of the Rose Adagio, trying hard not to betray the effort involved in holding these fiendish balances (or, perhaps, more appropriately, allowing her four princely suitors to keep her upright); and she achieved this deceit without diminishing the princess’s radiant splendour. It was, in all senses, a memorable debut; but let there be no doubt that this will be the worst of all her performances in this signature role. At 24, Hayward is fast maturing as a consummate ballerina and each performance will now be honed, closer to that elusive perfection, which alludes even the greatest of dancers.

Campbell had danced the role of the Prince in Sir Peter Wright’s production of The Sleeping Beauty for Birmingham Royal Ballet, but this was also his first outing as Florimund in The Royal Ballet’s “new-old” production and Hayward could not have had a more supportive partner. It is really a one-act ballet for Florimund, in this production, since he does not appear until one hundred years and two intervals have rolled by. The lonely soliloquy for the prince at the beginning of the Vision sequence was sensitively interpreted by Campbell and the male variation in the grand pas suits the lightness and bounce of his ballon, his effortless spinning and the admirable flexibility of elegant jeté en tournants. If there is a criticism – and it’s knit-picking – it comes with the hurried and brusque preparations for the three fish dives.

The reason that Ninette De Valois chose to use the notations smuggled out of Russia, in the throes of revolution, by Nicholas Sergeyev, to mount, firstly, The Sleeping Princess at Sadler’s Wells, in 1939, and then to make such a profound statement for the re-opening of The Royal Opera House, after the war, was that – perhaps more than any other ballet – it needs a considerable depth in strength from a large cohort of dancers. It provides the acid test of a ballet company’s credentials, like no other.

At every level, The Royal Ballet shines. And, for regular balletomanes, there is fun to be had in spotting the changes: Thus, we have perhaps the best modern-day interpreter of the wicked fairy, Carabosse, Elizabeth McGorian, here playing the Queen, on the receiving end of Carabosse’s mime (“You listen, while I speak…”.) delivered with an appropriate sneering menace by Christina Arestis. The solos, in which each minor fairy articulates their gifts to the baby Aurora, were a suite of “old friends”, faithfully rendered by new artists; and their six cavaliers danced strongly and in unison. Beatriz Stix-Brunell gave an effective, albeit youthful, sense of the Lilac Fairy’s benevolent power when faced with Carabosse. And, in the wedding celebrations of the final act, Valentino Zucchetti arched and flew as a sensational Bluebird, excellently supported by Hikaru Kobayashi, as Princess Florine.

The real beauty of this Beauty lies in the gorgeous costume and set designs, originally realised by the genius that was Oliver Messel and authentically reimagined for Monica Mason’s 2006 revival by Peter Farmer, who died, just six weeks’ ago, on New Year’s Day. The contrast between King Florestan’s court before and after its’ hundred year slumber is sumptuously effected. It is a ballet that also, of course, enjoys the most magnificent score with Tchaikovsky’s music, here, warmly rendered by the Opera House orchestra under the direction of Koen Kessels. This is a beautiful production that retains its timelessness; the enchantment regularly refreshed by the injection of new performances such as these.

Royal Opera House
21 December 2016—14 March 2017

Bow Street
Covent Garden
Box Office: 020 7304 4000

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

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