BALLET REVIEW: The Sleeping Beauty at the Royal Opera House

The Sleeping Beauty ballet is back at the ROH on its 99th performance, and now accessible to all in a cinema near you.

 

Choreography / Dancing

The ballerinas, for it is a female-heavy ballet, were outstanding in their mastery of the steps. The men had a few fire-cracker moments too, such as the superbly springy blue-bird. I was GOL gasping-out-loud at the difficulty and their appearance of effortlessness. I loved the inclusion of other Perrault characters like the white cat; when else do you see a cat doing ‘pas de chat’!?

A Petipa ballet from 1889, you do have to brace yourself for the vicarious agony of watching fairy after fairy hopping and flitting mercilessly on pointe. The worst moment has to be when Aurora the Princess has a pointe sequence in which each of the 4 suitors holds one hand in turn in slo-mo, then releases her to continue balancing  on the same leg unaided. Russian choreography really is the most sadistic. And to think the early dancers didn’t have reinforced shoes… Even Dame Monica Mason’s lasting memory of the ballet was ‘sore toes’. 

Why we continue to revere this relentless pointe work as the epitome of great classical ballet, I do wonder, when all it does is scream silent torture to me. It’s a cultural representation of the docile subjugation expected of women over 100 years ago, to the tenets of beauty as defined by an all-powerful male hierarchy, who was not, surprisingly, requiring the same pain-thresholds from its male dancers. 

sleeping beauty at royal opera house

Set / Costumes

A total delight. The set dates from 1946 when Covent Garden reopened on a shoe-string, a powerful symbol of our culture awakening after the hibernation of war. The final act’s backdrop shows a romantic ruin, both in keeping with the artistic trends of the 1700s, but also apt for representing how a palace would genuinely look if not maintained for 100 years. 

All echelons of society in this Georgian-style extravaganza were represented, from the gilded feathery opulence of royalty to the bulky sack-dresses of the peasantry.  Fairies in mouthwatering Quality Street colours added to the lushness. I think the rats need pink feet and knee-highs; the black-on-black colour scheme made their pranciness invisible.

 

Music 

Tchaikovsky worked intensively with Petipa so his music dovetails with every step. It is special to this ballet, while in other ballets, the music can be booming but the dance isn’t and it diminishes the dancers. 

The music is constantly repeating because this is ‘classical’ mirror-image ballet; we do it on the left and then we do it on the right. It also crescendos in unison with the corps de ballet, in synchronised – swimming mode, where the aesthetic is to achieve perfect cohesion and symmetry.

It’s admirable, but not my favourite type of ballet. It’s more about showcasing the steps, so at certain points the pace grinds to a halt, and lots of arm-actions are necessary to clarify the story. I prefer modern ballet which is more expressive and fuses the storytelling into every movement. 

 

Conductor / Orchestra 

The conductor picked out the leitmotifs for each character, how the music came together with the dance and how Tchaikovsky was asked to create a ‘feeling of Mendelssohn’ for the final act. Was he offended by the request… I think I might have been. 

The orchestra holds a very special place in my heart and when I see the Pit, I remember my mother Rosslyn Neave taking me down to salute her old colleagues. She was Press Officer at Covent Garden in the 50s and fell deeply in love with a violinist, John Woolf (my father is another violinist, from the Met). 

After, we would hear the gossip and what the musicians thought of the conductor. If they had no respect, they would come in at the wrong times, or flutes would swap roles with oboes. 

 

Interviews / Insights 

Dame Monica Mason explained the importance of the ballet in the repertoire; we saw historic photos of her in certain roles and footage of her coaching the current stars. 

 

In a cinema near you, treat yourself monthly to a £24 ticket that gives you access to all the dancing in close-up, back stage tours, interviews with the stars and insights into the history from different members of the huge team involved in making every ballet come together. 

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