writers on dancing


Starting Over

“The Sleeping Beauty”
English National Ballet
The Coliseum
5 – 21 January 2006
By John Percival
copyright ©2006 by John Percival

Given that Anton Dolin had mounted “Princess Aurora” for the early days of American Ballet Theatre —comprising extracts from the first and last scenes of “The Sleeping Beauty”—it is surprising that he neglected this ballet when forming and running London Festival Ballet from 1950. I seem to remember only “Bluebird” with John Gilpin and Alicia Markova; maybe Dolin felt he would need a larger troupe to challenge Sadler’s Wells Ballet on what had become its own ground. So it was not until 1967, under Donald Albery’s consolidating directorship, that Festival acquired a full “Beauty”, staged by Ben Stevenson and Beryl Grey. Eight years later Grey, now director, replaced this with Rudolf Nureyev’s much grander treatment, which was perhaps too demanding and too expensive to maintain—also, not everyone liked it.

Since then the company (now renamed English National Ballet) has had no fewer than four further productions: a decent one by Ronald Hynd, an enormous one by Derek Deane for the vast arena of the Royal Albert Hall, then Deane’s adaptation for standard theatres, and now the last of Kenneth MacMillan’s several different interpretations of Beauty, this one made for ABT in 1987 (and yes, just check how many different productions they’ve had since Dolin’s).  It comes complete with Nicholas Georgiadis’s mostly handsome costumes, carefully restored, but his ABT décor was thought unsuitable and is replaced by simple, rather sombre settings by Peter Farmer.  

MacMillan’s widow Deborah tells in a programme note how much her husband respected “Beauty” and learned from it, but what he made of it doesn’t quite work for me. Where he sticks to Petipa, that’s fine, but he was inclined to fiddle with things—he lovely Fairy solos in the Prologue sometimes seem different in detail of timing, épaulement, even steps. His biggest absurdity comes right at the beginning (and sadly persists right to the end)—turning the Master of Ceremonies into a silly creature waddling around with tiny ultra-turned-out steps and fussy gestures. Poor Michael Coleman, a fine dancer rescued from retirement but saddled with this nonsense. Other silly touches include making Aurora look away from the four suitors as they kneel to her (there’s far too much gazing at audiences), and not having the King and Queen present for Aurora’s awakening, when they should be blessing her marriage. The new garland dance is fussy, and Désiré is saddled with a solo, between hunting and vision scenes, that becomes complexly angled, possibly in an attempt to avoid resembling other productions. I could go on, but you get the point: this is very much “MacMillan after Petipa”.  It is also somewhat cut-down: Aurora has only six friends, not the usual eight; there are no frauleins to lament her injury, no pages to hold the royal trains …

Nevertheless, it’s good to see today’s ENB dancers having the challenge and opportunities of dancing even after-Petipa, and it reveals the whole company responding well. They put out no fewer than seven Auroras, of whom I’ve so far seen four—none ideal (who is nowadays?) but none to be ashamed of. I enjoyed most Elena Glurdjidze and Daria Klimentová. Glurdjidze, born in Tbilisi, trained there and at the Vaganova Academy.  She is rather small but has a lovely warm personality, is highly musical, and responds to the role’s varied moods.  Some other nights she makes a gorgeous Lilac Fairy. Klimentová was born and trained in Prague; what is usually an asset, namely looking a real grown-up woman, doesn’t help suggest a 16-year-old princess, but otherwise her clean, composed dancing has real style. ENB’s Estonian guest star, Agnes Oaks, has always seemed to me better suited to modern than classical roles, but many admired her Aurora. The more junior Fernanda Oliveira, from Brazil, showed a sweet charm in the birthday scene; if she looked less at home in the wedding scene, that may have been at least partly through having a replacement partner. Two other principals whom I haven’t yet caught as Aurora, Simone Clarke and Sarah McIlroy—both British— danced with pleasingly confident presentation in other prominent solo roles.             

Two further women demand special mention. Maria Ribó Parés is a tall, gauntly striking Carabosse (she shares that part with at least two men, André Portásio and Greg Horsman—I have a preference for women in the role, but must say that Horsman’s smiling relish in wicked deeds is most impressive. Too bad that the final confrontation of Carabosse and Lilac doesn’t come off properly—is that MacMillan’s fault or David Richardson’s lighting?).  As for Maria Kochetkova, the other outstanding woman, she is sheer delight in everything she does—Songbird or Enchanted Garden fairy, Princess Florine (and another contrast, bright pert Clara in “Nutcracker”). This young Russian is tiny, but dances big, and she brings such zest, polish and joy to the stage that she cannot long remain at her present corps de ballet ranking.  Quite a few other women, from all levels, are seen as fairies, friends, attendants, etc., all dancing with enthusiasm; even the often tiresome White Cat and Red Riding Hood come over with lively individuality.

Much the same is true of the men. For instance, Yat-Sen Chang (Chinese-Cuban), one of the most senior principals, plays both Bluebird and Désiré, but so far I’ve caught him only as a fairy cavalier, and instead of finding this small assignment ignominious, he looked happy and danced as brightly as ever. Others playing Désiré included Thomas Edur (still a bit cautious perhaps after his long leg injury), ex-Kirov Dmitri Gruzdyev, Arionel Vargas from Cuba, and Fabian Reimair, a Viennese soloist. And again there are comparatively junior dancers carrying off Bluebird, Gold soloist, etc. very ably; much credit for this must go to a strong artistic staff, notably ex-Royal Ballet star David Wall. ENB’s new artistic director, Wayne Eagling, has inherited a company in fine condition from his predecessor Mats Skoog; now the question is whether, despite financial restrictions, he can achieve his ambition to sustain the dancers with a distinctive and interesting repertoire.

Photo: Elena Glurdjidze as the Lilac Faiiry, in ENB's production of "The Sleeping Beauty." Photo courtesy English National Ballet.

Volume 4, No. 2
January 16, 2006

copyright ©2006 John Percival



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last updated on January 9, 2006