The Sleeping Beauty, Royal Opera House, London

A 38-year snooze? Most refreshing...
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In the opening minutes of the Prologue that remedy looks faintly perverse. Billowy satin frocks and matronly perms make the ladies of the court look swamped and fussy, and I wondered at the king's wearing a breastplate, as if he expects an arrow attack at the christening. But gradually as Tchaikovky's luscious music begins to work its spell - from an orchestra transformed under Valeriy Ovsyanikov - the whiff of mothballs recedes. Here is a set (Oliver Messel, revised by Peter Farmer) that does just what it should: create an airy frame for dance without imposing on it. And here is choreography restored with the liveliest eye: the Lilac Fairy's retinue nodding their heads in cheeky unison, or lying back on their elbows, their tutus upturned mushrooms. It takes an exuberant production like this to remind you of 19th-century ballet's showgirl streak.

On the way to the Opera House I had been asked by my companion to relate the plot of Sleeping Beauty. "So ... it's about fairies," he said, in a tone that suggested he was about to turn tail and go home. Well, yes and no. This is a ballet about dancing. The variations danced by the six fairies at the christening - delicious here in shades of Opal Fruits - run the gamut of dizzying virtuosity. Of the first night cast, Mara Galeazzi was memorable for her perfectly poised quick-change balances and a smile that said: "This might look impossible but look, I can do it!"

Yet the Prologue is merely a warm-up for the arrival of Aurora, and Alina Cojocaru's entrance drew gasps. I've seen two or three great Auroras, but never one so joyously buoyant that she looks in danger of floating away. And yet there is nothing flimsy about Cojocaru's technique, or her imagination. Her Rose Adage balances were impeccable, and in her Act I solo she found entire mini-dramas in classroom steps. How big the world is, her body was saying, but how frightening too, as she caught the fluttering tenderness of Aurora's quick bourrées, retreating from her suitors. At one climactic point in the music she became a frantic bird whose tiny heart was beating fit to burst.

Narrative has always been a Royal Ballet strength, and it is rarely put to better use than in this action-packed fairytale where every element has an almost moral quality. The Prologue and Act I are all action and dancing and the arrival of Carabosse (a gothic and very sexy Genesia Rosato) glitters with detail. I love the way she kicks her attendant rats when they stray in her path, and her mime, describing the nasty things that will happen to Aurora when she turns 16, revels in its clarity.

The serious enchantment happens in Act II, and that's where this production - originally staged by Ninette de Valois, recalled from memory by Monica Mason and Christopher Newton) strikes gold. Too often the Vision Scene is the low point of the ballet, a set piece to be sat through till the next bit of action. Here I was spellbound in the gaslit forest gloom, mesmerised by the darting patterns of the nymphs, heart-in-mouth at the Prince's amorous pursuit. And when Marianella Nunez's serene Lilac Fairy takes Johan Kobborg's dazed Prince aboard her boat, the magic tightens its grip. Most boats travel in a straight line. This one takes an extravagant great curve, plunging both protagonists and us deep into the forest that hides Aurora's castle - more glimmering green fog than thorny thicket. It's the most affecting sequence I've seen in ballet.

Only one element in this production seems unlikely to be in place 60 years from now, and that's the rather over-complicated new Garland Dance by Christopher Wheeldon. Otherwise the Royal Ballet has got itself a fine and timeless Beauty that will last for a hundred years if it needs it to.

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

Royal Opera House, WC2 (020 7304 4000), in rep to 3 June

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