DANCE / Naked thorns: Judith Mackrell on Scottish Ballet's Sleeping Beauty

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The history of The Sleeping Beauty is dogged by companies essaying grandeur on a shoe-string: sets evoking imitation Versailles with tacky Baroque ornament, peeling glitter and polyester velvets. It's a tall order sustaining the ballet's illusion of courtly opulence over a prologue and three acts. And few companies without the rich resources of an Opera House behind them ever succeed.

So, it was invigorating on Saturday afternoon in Oxford to see Scottish Ballet turn its back on fake glamour - to see the curtains open on a bare stage (no pillars, thrones or trompe-l'oeil), and to wait for the dancers to fill it. It was also very disappointing to realise that this boldly stripped-down staging was not going to work.

Basically, the designer, Patrick Kinmonth, makes two mistakes. His first is to create subtly panelled wall surfaces which actually resemble the wall-bars of a gym - their suggestions of sweat and utility fatal to an atmosphere of fairies and princes. His second is to paint the walls a drab grey, which makes the stark black-and- white of the courtiers' outfits (all costumes are by Jasper Conran) look garish, and bleaches out the delicate colours of the fairies' tutus. The effect in the Prologue is of people who've worn their best frocks to a party only to discover they were meant to wear jeans.

The dancers have a hard time sparkling in these dreary surroundings, and at first the performances look careful, accurate and dull, like lessons prepared for class. Yet a chemistry starts working in Act 1. You notice how strong and fluent all the dancers' arms are (the artistic director, Galina Samsova, handing down her own gifts), and how clear, musical and un-selfconscious the mime. The men jump and turn cleanly, the women devote as much care and energy to the small embellishing steps as to the powered party tricks. No one is trying to show off their athletic extensions, they're all working honourably within the elegant confines of Petipa's style.

This sense of a company spirit is strong enough to absorb the various guests and foreign artists. Yurie Shinohara, dancing Princess Florine in Act 3, shares Scottish Ballet's nicely proportioned style, although she's outstanding for the beautifully sharp lines she etches in the choreography. Vladislav Bubnov as Florimund dances with a Bolshoi juiciness but without the macho strain inimical to princely good manners. Daria Klimentova, as Aurora, starts out as a bit of a soubrette, but her dancing is all air and light, her prettily articulated steps powered by resources of grit that keep her moving through the choreography's most terrifying challenges.

And although the set remains grim, the dancers are rewarded by some wonderful outfits. If I wouldn't have chosen to be the King in his much too skimpy doublet, I would happily have made off with some of the women's sublimely tailored riding habits or with tutus as exquisitely structured as butterfly wings.

Theatre Royal, Newcastle 12-16 April (091-232 2061). Then tours

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