Dance / Bird on a wire: Judith Mackrell on English National Ballet's Sleeping Beauty at the Coliseum

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The Independent Culture
There are moments in English National Ballet's new Sleeping Beauty where Disney as much as Petipa seems to be the presiding genius of the production. Carabosse, the wicked fairy, is a cartoon hag - all hunchback, warts and crooked nose - who soars cackling through the air on the end of a flying wire. Her opposite number, the Lilac Fairy, carries a wand from which she sprinkles pixie dust on to Prince Florimund so that he can fly, Peter Pan- style, to the rescue of Aurora. There's also much bustling drama among the minor characters, who gossip and gawp at the sidelines of the action.

Yet the producer, Ronald Hynd, also brings out subtler human touches in his push to make this Beauty a story ballet. While Florimund is dreaming of Ideal Love, his real and rejected Countess looks credibly hurt and embarrassed. When Carabosse is raging at her exclusion from Aurora's christening, she pauses in front of the Fairy of Beauty and mournfully touches her own disfigured cheek before redoubling her curses. The baby, too, for all that it's a doll, is handled with far more expert realism than is customary. The Queen actually remembers to support its floppy new-born head.

So much character detail could seem egregious if the production didn't work so hard at the ballet's real business: the dancing. It's years since ENB have performed a version of Beauty and years, too, since they've looked so serious a classical company. I have some quibbles about the way the dancers are encouraged to force their technique - unnatural grins and affected hands show the strain of hyper-extended legs and extra pirouettes. I have some quarrels, too, with Peter Docherty's designs which include some of the most ill- cut, nastily shiny fairies' frocks in the ballet's history.

But the whole company moves like a single ensemble - at the lowest level dancing with power and commitment, at the highest with glimpses of true purity and grandeur. On Wednesday, the feeling of unity was heightened by the fact that Aurora and Florimund were danced by the company's only permanent Senior principals (the rest are seasonal guests) and the Lilac Fairy by Susan Jaffe who appears regularly with ENB.

Jaffe in the past has given rather standard star appearances - impeccable but disengaged. As the Lilac Fairy, though, she was right inside the ballet. Her appearance is almost absurdly perfect for the role - face beautifully and benevolently radiant, limbs sweetly proportioned - but her dancing is also luxuriantly stress-free, elegantly shaped, effortlessly powered.

By contrast, Agnes Oaks can look eccentric, her slender, flexible limbs almost serpentine and gaunt. But if she is a slightly high-strung Aurora, she is also triumphant as a golden innocent girl. In the 'Rose Adage' she took every difficult balance as if it were a lovely event and expanded to a celebratory magnificence in the grand pas of Act 3. She was partnered by Thomas Edur who, as always, acted and danced the perfect Prince - apart from being hampered in Act 2 by one of Docherty's worst follies: a pair of huge wading boots that suggested he was less keen on hooking Princesses than trout.