The Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production of Sir Peter Wright’s ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ is no doubt one of the grandest in the company’s repertoire. Set to Tchaikovsky’s immortal score with original choreography from Marius Petipa, the production is considered the very cornerstone of neo-classical ballet, and its clear narrative thread of good triumphing over evil continues to inspire choreographers, dancers and audiences today.
The ballet opens with the christening of Princess Aurora. Due to an oversight on the part of an apologetic Master of Ceremonies, wicked fairy Carabosse has been missed off the royal guest list. Enraged, she crashes the christening with what is a formidable entrance, carried onstage in a black litter by her feathered, crow-like henchmen, harbingers of death adorned in black. She curses the Princess, proclaiming that on her sixteenth birthday, Aurora will prick her finger on a spindle and die. The Lilac Fairy, a force for good, softens the spell – instead of dying, the Princess will fall into a deep and enchanted sleep for one hundred years, woken only by true love’s kiss.
Mime is an essential element of this ballet; the dancers’ expressive movement allows, not only for the communication of plot points, but also for the development of character. Although not technically challenging, the roles of Carabosse and the Lilac Fairy rely heavily on mime, the characters serving as a personification of the dichotomy of good and evil. Jade Heusen‘s Carabosse possesses a delicious fierceness and intensity, the perfect foil to Arancha Baselga‘s delicate Lilac Fairy.
The role of Princess Aurora has been described as one of the most demanding and technically challenging in ballet, unforgiving in its potential to expose the technique and stamina of its dancer, particularly during its ‘Rose Adagio’ sequence. Nao Sakuma shines in the role, executing the steps with all the grace and quiet nobility the character should possess. As the story develops we see her blossom – from exuberant child dancing with girlish charm, to mature teen, the perfect complement to Yasuo Atsuji‘s polished Prince Florimund. The flawless technical ability of the dancers cements the reputation of the Birmingham Royal Ballet as one of the country’s leading companies.
Despite continuing to evolve, Sir Peter Wright‘s choreography remains as close to the original of Marius Petipa as possible. The Birmingham Royal Ballet‘s production thus provides a window into the opulent world of Russian Imperial Ballet, evident not only in its virtuoso dance, but also through its rich imperial costumes. In fact, in terms of costume alone, the ballet is the company’s biggest, and the advance of a century whilst Aurora sleeps is cleverly reflected. The sets, meanwhile, are reminiscent of the grandeur of France; its golden, palatial structures evoking images of the court of King Louis XIV.
Tchaikovsky‘s score, performed live by the acclaimed Royal Ballet Sinfonia, captures a fine balance between pantomime and dance, with both Carabosse and the Lilac Fairy represented with their own leitmotif. The theme of Carabosse is angular and dissonant compared with the dulcet melodic tones of the Lilac Fairy’s, the sharp juxtaposition of the two creating a dramatic seam in the score.
With all the regalia of a royal wedding, the ballet concludes with a resplendent celebration, and a huge procession of courtiers and fairy-tale characters – all of whom have similarly triumphed over evil – are in attendance. Performed to an orchestral score, as focus shifts to the individual dances of the characters, the finale is a breathtaking spectacle.
Ironically, despite being concerned with the mysterious passage of time, the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production of ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ is timeless, casting a magnificent spell over its audience. A ballet dripping with royal splendour, it’s quite possible you’ve seen it before, once upon a dream…