If the masses have religion and, latterly, the X Factor, then throughout its 120-year history The Sleeping Beauty could easily be described as the opiate of the elite. Every age, and every great institution, gets the Beauty that it needs to calm its fears and promise it a bright, and, more importantly, a familiar tomorrow.
Tchaikovsky's and Petipa's original St Petersburg production invoked the glories of 17th-century France's Sun King, Louis XIV, to reassure its audience that the Romanov dynasty would endure for the greater good of Russia, notwithstanding glitches such as the fairly recent assassination of Tsar Alexander. The Royal Ballet's post-war production promised an end to austerity and the resumption of an empire on which the sun would never set. And now, riddled with internal power struggles that have seen dancers jailed, the theatre director peremptorily dismissed, and the artistic director of the ballet blinded in an acid attack, the Bolshoi has commissioned a ballet of calm, modesty and very little strife or bite. If only The Sleeping Beauty had a better record as a tipster, the ruling powers at the Bolshoi would have no worries.
Staged by one of the company's own revered ex-tyrants, Yuri Grigorevich, to mark the reopening of the theatre in 2011 after a troubled six-year renovation, this well-mannered Beauty has never before been performed live outside Russia. The first half especially could well perplex audiences used to more oomph from visiting Russian companies. Admittedly the set, by Italian Ezio Frigerio, is an incitement to a ransacking, with its spiralled gilt and alabaster columns, while costume designer Franca Squarciapino has sprinkled more glitter than Liberace and, regrettably, crowned lots of the cast in sad straggles of ostrich feather (the poor old Blue Bird looks like Orville's pensioner mum). But the choreography itself appears almost embarrassed by the excess.
The fairies that bring their gifts to the baby Aurora are positively bashful, with only Anastasia Stashkevich's Playfulness breaking out the sugar-fuelled vivacity of a stage-school prodigy, and Anna Tikhomirova's Audacity giving the sense that she was straining against a leash. Alexei Loparevich's evil Carabosse pours on all the hoop-backed, boo-me-now stalking you could expect, but there are no trap-door tricks or fireworks, and only a puff of dry ice to embellish his pantomime dame villainy.
Ekaterina Krysanova gives the teenage Aurora callow moments – legs that approach their first arabesques like vines groping for a stake, and shoulders that lift from the deep posture demanded by classical technique – so that her progress through the fiendishly difficult Rose Adagio is a genuine blossoming. Not only that, she keeps growing. Many ballerinas, knowing that the Rose Adagio is a keynote test of their skill, have pretty much shown us all they have by the end of it. Krysanova keeps a little development in reserve for the wedding celebrations that mark her true maturity. Even then she appears to be dancing within herself.
In a company as competitive as the Bolshoi, the temptation for the principals must be to make themselves stand out from the chasing pack. Krysanova does not succumb. Rarely is it made so clear that Aurora's steps – which, in ballet, are her personality – are the gifts of the fairies who attended her birth. This is a lovely, subtle characterisation. It's just that, in its lack of flash, and scale, and showmanship, it doesn't feel very Bolshoi.
If Grigorevich's overall approach to the ballet is subdued, he has stamped some of his trademark virility on the often damp character of the prince, helped by the buoyant Artem Ovcharenko, a dancer who seems not so much to jump as to ride invisible swells and breakers in the air. Ovcharenko's performance alone is almost enough to excuse the inconsistencies in the storytelling, like the overgrown castle lurking right behind him even before he has his first vision of Aurora, suggesting that he practically found his princess down the back of a sofa. And there is something creepy about the entire court already wearing new frills and powdered wigs when Aurora awakes, as if someone has been sneaking in and playing dress-up with their doll-like bodies. Still, we shouldn't look to a fairytale opiate for logic. Or for accurate predictions of the Bolshoi's future direction.
The Bolshoi Ballet's London season at the Royal Opera House closes with Balanchine's Jewels (Mon and Tues) to music by Faure, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, and the first UK performances (Fri and Sat) of The Flames of Paris, Vasily Vainonen's French Revolution tale to a score by Boris Asafiev.
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