"The Sleeping Beauty"
Nao Sakuma, Chi Cao
Birmingham Royal Ballet
Sadler’s Wells Theatre
17 – 19 October 2013
by Judith Cruickshank
copyright 2013 by Judith Cruickshank
It may be coming up to its 30th anniversary but Peter Wright’s production of "The Sleeping Beauty" mounted for the Birmingham Royal Ballet in 1984 still looks good. And thanks to Philip Prowse’s sumptuous designs it hard to think of one that looks grander or more splendid even given the constraints which inevitably come with a production which has to tour. But the permanent set adapts happily to the differing locations of the action and although there is plenty of gold and glitter Prowse’s wonderful sense of colour, the browns, russets and purples he combines in his costumes means that there is a sense of elegance throughout.
The text is pretty much what we have become accustomed to at the Royal Ballet, based on the version set by Nicolai Sergeyev for the then Sadler’s Wells company in 1939. Just how true that was to Petipa’s original became clear when the Mariinsky brought its reconstructed version to Covent Garden. The divergences appeared to be largely a question of different resources.
However, I thought I did see some minor changes in some of the Fairy variations in the Prologue as we usually see them, and of course, Wright has opted to make the Lilac Fairy a mimed role which at the performance I saw was charmingly and capably taken by Jenna Roberts, the previous evening’s Aurora. Carabosse, equally beautiful in black was Samara Downs who gave an admirably restrained but effective performance.
The Fairy soloists danced nicely, but without much in the way of classic style. All the steps were there, nicely done for the most part, but there was no sense that the variations could be anything more than an attractive display of technique. Angela Paul as the Fairy of Temperament (the ‘finger’ variation) was an honourable exception
The lack of attention to the narrative and drama in the choreography became even more evident with the appearance of Nao Sakuma as Aurora. Now the company’s longest serving ballerina, she’s an enchanting Aurora, technically strong, musical and more importantly, investing every step with purpose. I loved the way she reacted so sweetly to her parents and to her four suitors who she regarded with a mixture of modesty and curiosity. Purely through her dancing she showed that this was a sheltered young girl discovering the adult world opening before her.
Her Florimund was Chi Cao who is described in the programme as ‘a classical virtuoso’ and I can’t say better than that. There doesn’t appear to be a step he can’t do with ease and his lovely classical line is something rarely seen these days. Cao and Sakuma are an established, (though not exclusive), partnership and they complement each other beautifully. And most importantly they seem to understand the differing styles required by the choreography as the story develops.
However, what threw a spanner into the workings of Petipa’s beautifully constructed ballet was the insertion of a new duet after the awakening kiss. Wright first introduced this conceit in the Victorian Gothic production he mounted at Covent Garden in 1968 when the choreographer was Frederick Ashton. Charming as that particular pas de deux was, it seemed out of context then and even more so now in Wright’s own arrangement. This is a Classical rather than a Romantic ballet and in any case there is no need for the couple ‘get to know each other’. Aurora recognises her Prince instantly, as Perrault tells us. Moreover, we lose Tchaikovsky’s triumphant music or the end of the act, the signal that Carabosse’s evil spell has finally been broken.
That said, Sakuma and Cao danced the interpolation in fine romantic style which contrasted with the grandeur they brought to the grand pas de deux of the wedding scene, she dancing her variation with filigree grace while his was a lesson in academic brilliance. Natasha Oughtred was a charming Florine and Maureya Lebowitz and Laura-Jane Gibson sparkled in the pas de quatre.
The Royal Ballet "Sinfonia", conducted by BRB’s musical director Koen Kessels, gave the wonderful score all the love and respect it deserves, thoroughly deserving the warm applause they and the dancers received from an enthusiastic audience.
Photo: Nao Sakuma and Chi Cao in "The Sleeping Beauty." Photo by Bill Cooper.