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Awakening Aurora. A new Sleeping Beauty for the Royal Ballet

Publicado en la revista inglesa`Dance Now´. Número de Verano 2006
Awakening Aurora. A new Sleeping Beauty for the Royal Ballet
Awakening Aurora
A new Sleeping Beauty for the Royal Ballet

Por Jann Parry


Enlace a la Revista Dance Now



In the 1981 book celebrating the Royal Ballet’s fiftieth anniversary, Alexander Bland (pen-name of the critic Nigel Gosling) pondered over the legacy Ninette de Valois had left the company she founded. Should, for example, her renowned production of The Sleeping Beauty be ‘embalmed, restored or replaced?’ He concluded: ‘The characteristic British choice would be for restoration – and for
The Royal Ballet that is the natural, and probably therefore the correct, answer.’Monica Mason’s new production, in collaboration
with Christopher Newton, proves him right. Every attempt at replacement over the years has been resented. Peter Wright’s 1968 version, with designs by Lila di Nobili, was so disliked that the American Friends of Covent Garden paid for a new one. The result, Kenneth MacMillan’s 1973 production, designed by Peter Farmer, was considered even more unsatisfactory. Four years later, the board of the Royal Opera House turned to de Valois once again, at the age of eighty; Ashton helped her restage her vision of the ballet. Messel’s designs, however, were vetoed. American Ballet Theatre had just mounted its first full-lengthSleeping Beauty in 1976, using Messel’s designs, although he was too frail to supervise them. The colours and textures, apparently all wrong, were so disparaged that the Royal Ballet abandoned any prospect of its own Messel revival. David Walker was chosen as designer instead.
Nearly thirty years and two more productions later, Messel’s decor has finally been restored. Not his costumes: Peter Farmer has reinterpreted them, paying homage but imposing what he describes as ‘tonal order’. The outcome bears no resemblance to Messel’s original costumes, with two exceptions: that for Catalabutte, master of ceremonies, in emerald green with touches of red and gold, and a flamboyantly feathered hat; and Aurora’s pink Act I tutu. Because Farmer’s palette is so much blander than Messel’s, Catalabutte (whose outfit remains the same throughout, bunlike the rest of the court’s) looks as though he’s a guest from another production. No one matches his vividness: Prince Florimund, who sported a scarlet redingote in Messel’s original Act II designs, now goes hunting in beige; Florestan (with the two sisters in Act III) wears pale apricot instead of orange-vermilion and cyclamen pink. So this production is not an historical restoration, like the Kirov’s reconstruction of the original Mariinsky designs for its Sleeping Beauty. Those were astonishingly bright and varied – garish even, to our eyes, with little sign of colour plotting. Yet they provided a strong sense of a ‘real’ society, with peasants as well as a hierarchy of courtiers, to balance the fantasy realm of fairies and fabulous beasties. So did Messel’s designs. Farmer, Mason and Newton, however, have placed the ballet entirely in fairyland, with nary a peasant in sight: no children either, apart from non-dancing pages. Everybody is dressedas if in a Watteau or Fragonard painting, though period details range from more or less seventeenth century to eighteenth in the last act. The colour scheme is predominantly pastel – shades of toilet-tissue, as someone sniped – with a mauve spotlight to make the Lilac Fairy glo  more conspicuously than her muted attendants.


There’s no distinctive stamp to the costume designs, unlike those by Philip Prowse for Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production, or Nicholas Georgiadis’s in English National Ballet’s latest staging. Nonetheless, we’re grateful for nice and harmonious, and for the return of Messel’s dreamy decor, whose trompe l’oeil architecture complements the choreography’s patterns. This is what de Valois decreed a quintessentially English Sleeping Beauty should be: light, airy, coherent, elegant and timeless. The new production has got its priorities right, putting the emphasis not on the setting but the text and quality of the dancing. Mason and Newton have gone back to Nicolai Sergeyev’s account of Petipa’s choreography, with some English additions: Ashton’s variation for Aurora in the Vision Scene, and his solo for the Prince after the hunt; his version of the Florestan trio; a new Garland dance by

Christopher Wheeldon; Dowell’s staging of the ensemble dances in the last act, and nof Carabosse’s interaction with her creatures
in the Prologue. Here come my quibbles. Why not revert to de Valois’s choreography for the rats, as a tribute to her? She had them shuttling back and forth as if on a loom, while Carabosse brandished the fateful spindle – a more telling idea than Dowell’s rolling
around. Wheeldon’s Garland Dance, though an attractive homage to Ashton with men as well as women), is too truncated.
No doubt its brevity is to avoid overtime, like the savagely cut hunting scene, but the ballet’s amplitude is thereby reduced. For the same reason, why skimp on the original production’s numbers: only one nursemaid by the cradle instead of two, three knitting women, not four? And why cast as the Countess in Act II a dancer (Isabel McMeekan) we’ve already seen as a fairy godmother? In a company big enough to do justice to Petipa’s ballet, such unnecessary overlapping has no justification. Enough carping. The production’s framework is grand, its iconic tableaux honoured. In the Prologue, the fairies, cavaliers and attendants enter up a ramp
from below, as if into a pavilion in the palace park. They line up in familiar pha-lanxes, and for their communal blessing,
form a pyramid shape with the Lilac Fairy lifted on high as its apex. At the end of the scene, the array of supported arabesques leads the eye to the infant Aurora, hope of the kingdom’s future happiness. This is the symbolic geometry missing from the two
previous productions: its return is an assurance that all will indeed be well in the rest of the ballet to come. In the opening
two performances, the fairies were under par, with the exception of Laura Morera’s Fairy of the Golden Vine (the ‘finger’ variation).


Marianela Nuñez, however, was a serenely benevolent godmother-in-chief, accomplishing her tricky variation, in Lophukov’s choreography, with gloriousease. She saw off Genesia Rosato’s glamorous, ironic Carabosse with the smiling conviction of her own superior goodness. Alexandra Ansanelli, making her debut as the Lilac Fairy in the second cast, was less assured, gracious rather than compelling. Elizabeth McGorian’s Carabosse had a hint of mania in her triumphant cackle that

was suddenly chilling. In Act I, Aurora makes her entrance as Fonteyn did, pausing with her arms en couronne before descending from the colonnade at the rear. Alina Cojocaru, on the first night, sparkled with the excitement of a young debutante, dancing for herself more than the court. She left out the Indian prince in the Rose Adagio balances, but was otherwise delightfully decorous,
beautifully secure. Tamara Rojo was graver, as if knowing the enormity of what she was to inherit. She blossomed as she
acknowledged her suitors, spun in multiple pirouettes and was then cut to the quick by her first-ever injury from
Carabosse’s spindle. All credit to Farmer’s gauzes and Mark Jonathan’s lighting for the foliage invading the sleeping palace at the end of Act I, and for the Vision Scene and panorama in Act II. The bosky effects are excellently and efficiently done, using simple stage magic. The Lilac Fairy’s boat, a clunky confection, soon vanishes of its own accord and the rest of the journey is on foot (and
pointe). Carabosse gibbers over Aurora’s canopied bed but crumples as the kiss is delivered and the Awakening tableau assembles. Well-timed and managed though the transformations are, it’s a pity that so many of the hunt dances, including the farandole, have been sacrificed on their behalf. The prince duly establishes himself in his solo as a noble prospect for Aurora. Johan Kobborg gave him an ardour in the vision scene that Federico Bonelli lacked, elegant though he was. Cojocaru dreamed exquisitely; Rojo pleaded subtly to be rescued from her long sleep. What bliss to hear no sound from any pointe shoes; even the nymphs in their long green tutus evaporate as silently as a mirage. Acts II and III run together without an interval, the scene change covered by Farmer’s front-cloth and Valery Ovsyanikov’s committed conducting, anticipating the ballroom’s splendour. Messel’s misty backdrop of meandering bridges (the palace’s topography defieslogic) is enchanting. The court’s gleaming new costumes, alas, are pallid, for all their glitter. The fairytale characters’ variations in the first two performances were unexceptional, apart from both Princess Florines, Sarah Lamb and Laura Morera, who danced like ballerinas.



The climax of the ballet, the grand pas de deux for Aurora and Prince Florimund, lives up to all expectations. Framed by Messel’s columns and arches, Cojocaru and Kobborg looked genuinely joyful, she as regally delicate as a Meissen figurine. Rojo combined gravitas with spontaneity, as though discovering her awakened self as she danced, securely partnered by Bonelli. By the end of the coda, with Aurora poised in attitude en avant, arms upraised in a V of triumph, the audience knows that the Royal Sleeping Beauty has come home. It June it set off again to Washington, D.C., in the Kennedy Center where Dowell’s 1994 production, with its misconceived designs by Maria Bjornson, had its world premiere.
This time, American audiences will be able to see, once again, what de Valois had in mind for her British Beauty – however
much the dancers (and the costumes) have changed since she first took her production to the United States in 1949.


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