Sleeping Beauty

Lyric Theatre (Australian Ballet)


Choreographed by Stanton Welch, designed by Kristian Fredrickson.

Music by Piotr Illyich Tchaikovsky,

Professional production

This production of The Sleeping Beauty was Kristian Fredrickson’s last design before his death in November 2005, and a more perfect legacy one could not wish for. Fredrickson was one of Australia’s best stage designers, and for this ballet he not only produced exquisite costumes and his trademark symbolic sets, but achieved a perfect marriage between colour and meaning.

Accompanied by her flimsily skirted fairies, Lilac, the Queen of Spring, inhabits a world of blush-pale beauty; but when the wicked Queen of Winter, Carabosse (danced with a shivery evil subtlety by Annabel Bonner Reid), enters this perfect world to bring down her curses on the new-born Princess Aurora, she and her attendants are also clothed in white, but this time the whiteness of death, tinged with grey and black, more like the White Witch in C.S. Lewis’s stories than the more obvious black-clothed figure we are used to. So the moral boundaries between light and dark, good and evil, are smudged a little: although Evil is finally conquered, as in all good fairy stories it must be, it is the defeated but not destroyed Carabosse who is the last to leave the stage, and we are left wondering when she will return.

Not in this story, though, for although the 21st century question mark about happy endings is palpably there, it seems that, for a moment at least, “all’s for the best in this best of all possible worlds”, and the colours change to the rich reds and golds of royal triumph.

This is such a visually striking production that I could rave on about the details of set and costumes for ever, like the use of richly-coloured Indian fabrics, the stiff-legged dolls and soldier toys, the adorable ginger and white cats, who just about upstaged the dancers with their pure-cat behaviour (Ben Davis and Natasha Kusen played them the night I saw the show) , and the icy forest from where Prince Florimund (Robert Curran) and his little brother Prince Florestan (Adam Bull) set off to rescue the sleeping princess.

But there is more to a ballet than the way it looks, of course, and choreographer Stanton Welch makes fierce demands on his dancers, especially on Princess Aurora (danced on Monday night by Rachel Rawlins), who has the fiendishly difficult task of remaining balanced on one toe for at least five minutes while she flirts, pirouettes and acknowledges her four suitors. But here, as everywhere, she triumphs over gravity as well as her young men, and there wasn’t the slightest trace of a tremble or a stumble a truly remarkable performance, and one for which she received well-justified ovations at the end of the evening.

At three hours it’s a very long ballet, and there were lots of four-year-olds fast asleep by the end of the second act, but as Tchaikovsky’s original score went for four-and-a-half hours, perhaps we should be grateful or perhaps not for those who, like me, just couldn’t get enough of the magnetic power of the production.

I have rapidly dimming memories of Maina Gielgud’s 1985 production for The Australian Ballet, where the sets were a cold glittering blue, and where the corps de ballet were all well-fleshed. Fashions change in ballet as in life, however, and this year’s crop of dancers are so thin as to look almost anorexic, probably more suitable for the lightness of touch that Fredrickson and Welch bring to this latest interpretation. And the girls’ fragility of appearance belies their physical strength, which takes them through the very demanding routines that Welch has devised for them.

All fairy tales finish happily-ever-after, even if there’s a darker sub-text here, and there is usually a wedding and a party. In this ballet, the joie-de-vivre goes on for a full 30 minutes after the romantic resolution, where all the dancers get a chance to perform, and although in one sense it’s pure self-indulgence on the part of the choreographer, and smacks a little of the end-of-term concert of a ballet school, the dancing is so exhilarating, and the techniques so impressive, that you never really want it to end.

After all, why waste all those gorgeous costumes, and the talents of the cast of thousands, by finishing the ballet just because there’s no more narrative? There’s still lots of Tchaikovsky at his tuneful best for the choreographer to use, after all, and the finale leaves everyone on a high, and in large part contributes to making this production of The Sleeping Beauty one of the most brilliantly gorgeous interpretations of classical dance that you’re ever likely to see.

Chief conductor and music director Nicolette Fraillon with The Queensland Orchestra

Playing until 15 July 2006 – Wednesday 12 at 7.30pm, Thursday 13 at 6.30pm, Friday 14 at 7.30pm, Saturday 15 at 1.30pm and 7.30pm

Duration : three hours, with two 20-minute intervals

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Sun 9th July 2006)