English National Ballet's new Sleeping Beauty, receiving its London premiere at the Coliseum, has the confidence of a good fairy tale. One event leads grandly into another; the stage picture is filled with detail, yet the story never loses momentum. Casting is variable - the matinee I saw could not match the evening performance - but that pacing remains steady and clear.
The production has been carefully pieced together: the credits have enough layers for a small onion. Kenneth MacMillan's traditional staging, based on Petipa's original 19th-century choreography, was made for American Ballet Theatre in 1987, with designs by Nicholas Georgiadis. ENB have taken over Georgiadis's costumes, adding new sets by Peter Farmer. MacMillan died in 1992; his text has been reconstructed and taught by ENB's own team, including the former Royal Ballet dancer David Wall.
That's a committee, but a committee with a shared sense of tradition, and it makes for a handsome version. MacMillan makes a few small adjustments, adding a fiddly Garland Waltz, but his text is clear and strong. The designs are opulent, though Farmer and Georgiadis have some fussy touches. The ballet's many small episodes register with full weight.
That sense of drama remained clear in the undercast matinee. Fernanda Oliveira was an unyielding Aurora, nervous in the exultant dances of the first act. Her best came with the pricked finger, in the dizzying dance before her collapse. The supporting soloists were tense, though Kei Akahoshi shaped her variation clearly.
In the evening, with a new cast, the production lifted. Thomas Edur and Agnes Oaks, ENB's reigning couple, danced to the leading roles, while the company came into focus behind them. Edur, recently recovered from injury, danced the Prince's first melancholy solo in beautiful soft phrases, the hero's thoughts unfolding with the steps.
From his first moment on stage, Edur is part of the ballet's world: his first gesture, a bow to a countess in the hunt scene, shows us he is noble, and that he is lonely. Seeing a vision of the sleeping Aurora, he watches her with yearning attention; throughout, he partners her with wonder and pride.
The hunt is this production's most beautiful scene. Georgiadis dresses the Prince's court in 18th-century riding habits, skirts sweeping, while Farmer provides a misty winter landscape. Edur leads the winding court dances with chivalrous grace, without losing his melancholy. The corps, showing touches of strain in the first act, have relaxed in time for the Vision scene, flitting in and out with confidence.
Throughout his career, Edur's principal partnership has been with his wife, Agnes Oaks. An intelligent dancer, Oaks lacks the radiance of a natural Aurora. She works her way into this ballerina role, giving a performance full of thought. When the wicked fairy Carabosse gives her the fatal spindle, she curtseys with unaffected gratitude.
The splendid André Portásio makes an icily powerful witch. Cursing Aurora, he is a picture of outraged grandeur. It's always clear that this is revenge for his insulted dignity, yet he shows other emotions too. When Elena Glurdjidze's strong, calm Lilac Fairy overturns the curse, Portásio echoes her gestures with shock and wonder: his magic can be overturned?
Martin West conducts a stately performance of Tchaikovsky's score, always moving forward. ENB's dancers are finding their way in Petipa's very exposed solos. Yet they are responding to coaching, and to the choreography: they take care over style, dancing with attention.
There is another marvellous mime performance. Michael Coleman makes Catalabutte, the Master of Ceremonies, a fussy old dear. Coleman is always in the action: fluttering nervous fingers when forbidden knitting needles are discovered, or giving a complacent little sigh when the chandeliers are lit for the wedding celebrations.
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