The company's spirits needed lifting. The new Beauty is the last production of Mats Skoog's directorship. Announcing his resignation in March, he mentioned "turbulent times" - in financial difficulties, ENB has been stuck between a box office need for blockbusters and the dancers' need for more varied choreography. The number of performances sank, and in 2004 the Arts Council arranged a £2.3m rescue package for the company. Skoog will be replaced by Wayne Eagling, a former Royal Ballet dancer who has directed Dutch National Ballet. Eagling arrives just as things are looking up - there will be more performances this season, and he inherits this strong new Sleeping Beauty.
New to the company and to Europe, this production is based on MacMillan's 1987 staging for American Ballet Theatre. This was an opulent affair, nicknamed "the million dollar production" for its sumptuous designs by Nicholas Georgiadis. English National Ballet have kept Georgiadis's elaborate costumes, lots of satin, pink and bronze, but commissioned new, more portable sets by Peter Farmer.
Farmer's sets make a light, flexible frame for the dancing, traditional if not especially poetic. Aurora's birthday is celebrated in a garden, framed by trellises. The magic forest creeps in smoothly from the sides, all feathery fronds. His most evocative scene is the hunt, a misty woodland. Aurora wakes up in an airy salon, a curving wall of windows.
MacMillan does tinker with Petipa's text, adding a fussy garland dance and tweaking the "awakening" scene. But, as a whole, his production has a well-paced clarity, and the company rise to it. Corps scenes are particularly fine. The girls of the "vision" scene drop crisply into their poses, and flit very lightly from the stage. There's a lovely sweep to the third act polonaise.
The very exposed fairy variations are more tentative, though Sarah McIlroy has sharp, musical attack in the "finger" solo. Yat-Sen Chang was a bounding Bluebird, with Simone Clark authoritative as the Princess Florine. André Portásio is a bold, emphatic Carabosse, descending from his/her chariot with icy grandeur.
In another fairy-tale ending, the first night was led by Agnes Oaks and Thomas Edur, back after Edur's long injury. He has always been a princely dancer, with a human warmth to his elegance. He partners Oaks with tender gravity, with a touch of wonder in the vision scene. The mime is musical and spontaneous, feeling overflowing with Tchaikovsky, and he dances the wedding duet with terrific flourish. Oaks, always assured, grows in grandeur through the evening, finding new authority in the last act. Martin West conducted a sweeping, well-paced account of Tchaikovsky's score, with lovely tone from ENB's own orchestra.
To 29 October (023-8071 1811), then touring; see www.ballet.org.ukReuse content