The ballet version of the Grimm Brothers’ fairytale Sleeping Beauty has played a significant role in the musical education and inspiration of young people.
A 7-year-old Igor Stravinsky witnessed the first public performance of the Tchaikovsy/Petipa production in January 1890. Igor went on to make his fame as a composer of great ballet music such as The Firebird. That first 1890 production was also seen by a sickly 8-year-old St Petersburg child whose parents despaired for her health and future. That night, her life was transformed. Within two years, Anna Pavlova had been accepted by the Imperial Ballet School and went on to make her name synonymous with classical ballet (and meringue pie with fruit and cream!). Another for whom that production was his first taste of ballet was an 18-year-old student, Serge Diaghilev, who was to become the world’s first great impresario, and a specialist in ballet productions (his Ballet Russe introduced Sleeping Beauty to the west in 1921).
So this is a splendid and historic work to introduce children to the great art form of dance. It’s a shame that many performing arts companies take a defensive stance when producing classics, anticipating criticism from those who see good only in the creation of entirely new works. Audiences, however, continue to love the classic repertoire, and it’s good that the ticket-buying public finally call the tune. No generation should be spared Sleeping Beauty. There can be few more sublime moments in ballet than the dramatic concluding section to Act I, with Tchaikovsy’s gorgeous swirling music powerfully matching the horrifying build-up to the wicked fairy’s perfidious strike against Aurora and the court.
Queensland Ballet do this work great justice, with an enchanting mixture of old and new, complete with dazzling displays of virtuosity. Artistic designer Francois Klaus has built on and extended the original choreography of Marius Petipa, with a great deal of original work which blends well with the traditional style.
The production as a whole takes a little while to engage the audience, but has the audience firmly under its spell by the birth of Aurora. The opening is suitably creepy, with the evil fairy Carabosse (Ilja Louwen) working wicked magic in the forest until confronted by the good Lilac Fairy, Hayley Farr, dancing throughout with grace and sweetness. (Farr alternates as Aurora, when Claire Phipps dances the Lilac Fairy.) Louwen gives an excellent performance, especially as she has had only a few weeks to prepare this role, which had to be rechoreographed following the talented Anthony Lewis’s unfortunate accident. With her long slender limbs and black costume she is at times evocative of a tarantula. I couldn’t quite take to her spiky black headdress, and overall would have preferred a less stereotypally wicked fairy, which may have made the evil versus good dichotomy more real.
Tracey-Lee Heilbronn depicts Aurora’s mother the Queen from early yearnings for a child to a stately mature regent. Klaus has given her some nice steps which subtly show her desire for the experience of childbirth, and even has the suggestion of a phantom pregnancy. She is ably supported by a dignified David Semple as the king.
Rachael Walsh is a convincing Aurora, dancing the joyous 16-year-old who is the idol of the court but suffers from the malice of Carabosse. Walsh does challenging pointe work, sometimes a little unsteadily, but interacts marvellously with the corps and her bridegroom. She is matched perfectly with Jens Weber as the prince whose stately leaps have the audience in raptures. He seems to have no problem with marrying a 116-year-old. (Tama Barry also dances the prince’s role.)
The court’s master of ceremonies, Paul Boyd, is unequivocally splendid. This old trouper, having apparently drunk deep from the fountain of eternal youth, dances with vigour and precision. And Klaus has him in every bunfight, his character repeatedly organising court dancers while taking a leading position in set pieces, while also developing character in interactions with courtiers, servants and royalty. The corps give a disciplined and lively performance throughout.
Varied and entertaining solo work from godmother dancers Simone Webster, Alison Spink, Claire Phipps, Nicole Galea and Angela Kenworthy make Aurora’s christening a colourful event in Act I, while Kimberley Davis and Michael Braun, are a “dynamic duo” whose energy is palpable in the Act II Bluebird pas de deux. (Other dancers in these roles on other nights are Renee Marriott, Kelly Edwards and Tama Barry).
Selene Cochrane’s costumes are a rich display of variety and colour, suitably complemented by Graham Maclean’s grand sets depicting indoor palace scenes and outdoor woods and gardens with equal splendour. The total effect from costumes and sets, superbly lit by Andrew Meadows, is a dazzling and multi-hued tapestry of colour, light and movement. The Queensland Orchestra under Thomas Woods capably add to the magic. A pit orchestra can never be big enough to do justice to Tchaikovsky’s rich orchestration there is always an element of thinness but for the most part the orchestra provides a satisfying performance.
The most charming part of the ballet is the appearance of talented 11-year-old Talia Fowler as the young Aurora. Under the critical eye of Paul Boyd’s MC, she engages in all kinds of mischief, including one very naughty thing, only to be instantly forgiven by her indulgent father. She receives good back-up from fellow Junior Extension Program dancers Nicola Leonardi, Sarah Bakker and Romy Poulier.
Sleeping Beauty is a ballet strongly recommended for all who love dance, especially at its classic best. And don’t leave the kids at home who knows what budding Pavlovas, Stravinskys or Diaghilevs will have their lives transformed by seeing this wonderful performance.