Sleeping Beauty, Royal Opera House, London

A beauty to send you to sleep

Zo Anderson
Wednesday 03 March 2004 01:00

The Royal Ballet's latest Sleeping Beauty has not been lucky. At last year's premiere, an injured Darcey Bussell was replaced mid-performance. This time, it was the prince's turn: Johan Kobborg, injured in his first solo, was replaced by Federico Bonelli. It was the biggest drama of a flat evening.

This Sleeping Beauty has always had more drama off stage than on. Natalia Makarova's production, new last year, was immediately controversial. She added details - including a painfully winsome role for a child Cupid. She also threw out the Royal Ballet's traditional text, a cherished part of the company's identity. Makarova's was essentially a "Soviet Beauty", the version she learnt at the Kirov. It is a skimpier text, lacking the Royal Ballet's wealth of dramatic and musical detail.

Critics and fans looked to this revival with beady eyes, awaiting promised revisions. The changes are minor. It's still a Soviet Beauty: the Prologue fairies dance without partners; the Lilac Fairy still wears heeled shoes after the first act. None of Ashton's Royal Ballet additions has been restored. Even Cupid is still there, though his role is reduced.

The loss of the Royal text is serious. Have there been any gains? The Kirov version is thinner but could still be distinguished. With Makarova's coaching, the Royal Ballet is on very strong technical form. Luisa Spinatelli's sets and costumes are pretty, though lacking in grandeur. But it's hard to care very much. In Makarova's hands, Petipa's great ballet becomes insipid. The storytelling is consistently weak. The fairy tale's great events - the curse, the pricked finger, the enchanted sleep - dawdle along, strangely underpowered. The pacing is slack, and extra business crowds out vital detail. Dancers keep addressing mime to the audience, not to one another. In dance terms, Makarova is still trying to retrain the Royal as the Kirov. The women arch their backs, lift their chins, crook their wrists. The style looks mannered on them: it's not their natural dance accent.

It's also consistently unmusical. The dancers of the corps are in perfect unison, and they're all off the music. Soloist after soloist flattens the dance's rhythm, muffling dynamic contrasts. You'd think it was bad manners to notice the difference between a 4/4 time signature and the triple time of a waltz. The orchestra has the same trouble: Valery Ovsyanikov's conducting irons Tchaikovsky's score into measured dullness.

Alina Cojocaru trained in Kiev, and she is at home in Makarova's Russian style. Her tiny physique and air of youth are both perfect for Aurora, and she sails over the role's technical hurdles. However, she dances everything in the same even tone. There's no real contrast between the young princess of the Rose Adagio and the grown woman of the wedding pas de deux.

Kobborg made a vividly dramatic entrance: a courtly prince, aware of his responsibilities but full of romantic yearning. Bonelli, taking over at the last minute, danced cleanly and partnered well. Lauren Cuthbertson is an assured Lilac Fairy but loses grandeur by smudging one step into the next. Soloist roles were strongly taken but trapped by this blunted production.

In repertory to 7 March (020-7304 4000)

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