Sleeping Beauty, Royal Opera House, London

The Royal Ballet is riding high again
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The Independent Culture

When a young ballerina gives her first Sleeping Beauty you won't find me rushing to book a ticket. The mother in me can't bear the tension. Once she's through the Rose Adagio, she'll be flying, I know, but too many Auroras have come to grief on those fiendish balances. What sadist of a choreographer asks a girl to centre herself within a minute of rushing on stage, perch on the same toe for an age without wobbling, while alternating her meagre thread of support from four boys in turn? Oh yes, and then go on to dance the longest solo of the 19th century. Sit too close to the stage and the terror in a first-timer's eyes will haunt you for weeks. Last Monday was 21-year-old Lauren Cuthbertson's second showing, and though fear clung like fog to the opening sequence, her subsequent triumph quickly erased the memory of it. It was like watching ice melt into a bubbling spring. Promoted to First Soloist last year, Cuthbertson has been pipped for big things since she left school. And while the company hardly has a dearth of Auroras at the moment (fielding eight in the current run of Beautys), it can't be unaware of the lack of British ones. With Darcey Bussell likely to bow out soon, a girl from Devon with long legs and quick feet has investment value.

I knew Cuthbertson's Aurora was out of the woods as soon as the lovely detail in her dancing crept back in: the little flutter of joy registered in her retiré foot as she accepts a rose from each suitor, the swoony lushness of her rallentando turns. People often ask what makes a ballet worth seeing several times, given that the steps within a single production don't change. The answer is that every artist draws your attention to different things. It was if that fluttering foot was quite a new idea.

Sleeping Beauty is the perfect showcase for a company that's in good fettle, famous for its generous number of roles and unequalled as a corps de ballet workout. Royal Ballet watchers were mystified when this present production was ordered up, such an unseemly short time after the premiere of its costly predecessor. But decisiveness has been the hallmark of Monica Mason's rule to date. The company she took over was directionless and depressed. Less than five years on it's riding higher than it has for decades. And just as its classical identity has been restored, so also, paradoxically, has it found a sense of adventure.

Only weeks ago the curtain went up on two brand new works of thrilling inventiveness and daring, whose success was such that they sold out immediately. As a result, Mason last week appointed Wayne McGregor as the company's first house-choreographer in almost 15 years. Suddenly everything is coming right, and it's largely down to the prescience of one woman.

So, what else makes this Sleeping Beauty worth all the expense and fuss? Beyond individual performances of immense clarity and style, that is, plus sets and special effects of superior loveliness. The reason I'll be up for seeing this production time and time again is that everything in it carries such conviction. Play-acting is the curse of story-based classical ballet and this production is gloriously devoid of it. The only way to draw in a cynical 21st-century audience is with utter belief: belief in the emblematic vividness of the story, belief in the way it lives and breathes through the steps. That way we can believe too. It's that simple.

Jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

To 20 December (020 7304 4000)

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