Review – The Royal Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty on Digital Theatre

As I mentioned in my review of The Nutcracker, Digital Theatre have just released two new ballet productions from the Royal Ballet. The second of these is a 2006 recording of The Sleeping Beauty featuring Alina Cojocaru and Federico Bonelli.

Prologue

Opening with the gorgeous Tchaikovsky overture, the curtains raise to reveal a storybook scene. This production has been slightly changed for more recent runs but I prefer this 2006 version – it is a little more muted in its costumes and sets which I think is a good thing.

The Prologue (which, in my eyes should be called an Act seeing as it is just as long as the other Acts!) is really all about the fairies, and there is an astonishingly good collection of dancers here. There are no fewer than four current Royal Ballet principals out of the six fairies and all the variations are danced beautifully: Crystal Fountain (Isabel McMeekan) – exhibits lovely control throughout her extensions; Enchanted Garden (Lauren Cuthbertson) – has beautifully controlled ronde de jambes en l’air en pointe; Woodland Glade (Mara Galeazzi) – makes the attitude devant to arabesque (while en pointe) look effortless; Song Bird (Natasha Oughtred) – floats like a real fairy and is rather sweet; Golden Vine (Laura Morera) – has so much life and musicality.

The head of the fairies, though, is the Lilac fairy, and it honestly don’t get any better than Marianela Nuñez. Simply gorgeous throughout the whole ballet. In her opening variation she doesn’t hold back – with daring and beautiful penchees en pointe, quadruple pirouettes and Italian fouettes to arabesque so controlled it looked as if she could have stayed there for days. Something that really stood out was that Nunez breathes so much life and story into what can be quite a minor role. Her stage presence projects throughout not just the ROH, but through the screen to the digital viewers too.

There is a very fine collection of cavaliers (all soloists/first soloists) who take their small moment to shine. I then always smile with the tick-tock precision of the fairy attendents coming forward in a line with seemingly clockwork legs.

As the mice appear with big jumps (choreography by Anthony Dowell, I believe), Genesia Rosato immediately exerts a commanding presence as Carabosse. There is not hint of deference to Queen in her curtsey and she is truly superb in her mime as she casts her curse on Aurora. However, the Lilac Fairy is ready and waiting to negate some of the evil effects and so the Prologue ends.

Act 1

Act I opens with some storytelling (only in a fairytale could you be beheaded for knitting!) before the iconic Garland Waltz (choreographed in this production by Christopher Wheeldon). Following a slightly anticlimatic moment when the suitors look for Aurora’s approach and she doesn’t appear (I’ve never understood why this bit is there), we catch out first glimpse of Alina Cojocaru as Aurora. Following her nimble entrance, we move onto the Rose Adagio. I don’t think any other piece of classical choreography makes my heart race as much. The most beautiful music, fantastic choreography and devilish difficulty makes this exciting to watch every single time. Cojocaru is in safe hands though and she keeps her wide-eyed, girlish, innocent role as she uses solid technique to conquer the piece.

As if this wasn’t enough for poor Aurora (it’s her birthday after all!), she then has to almost immediately return for her Act I variation. Cojocaru seems to relax a bit more in this and seems almost securer in her arabesque balances without the suitors. Her manege of grand jeté en tournant was truly astonishing, hitting full elevation and spplits on every single jump. She finally pricks her finger (that’s teach her for dancing with spindles…) and collapses. I always smile at the melodrama of Carabosse escaping through the trapdoor on stage, to the bemusement of the suitors, and the Act closes with Nuñez serenely putting the castle to sleep.

Act II

You’ve got to feel sorry for Prince Florimund. He has to wait two full acts and two intervals before he gets to set foot on the stage! The Act begins with a slightly pointless game of blinds man buff, although it’s still amusing. I’m always a little confused by the mime at this point in the ballet – are they off to fight a bear in the forest?! Maybe there could be a cross over with The Winter’s Tale? :)

As the hunting party leaves, Bonelli starts the reflective Ashton variation. Bonelli’s natural nobility matches his flawless technique to immediately add so much depth to the variation. When he reaches out in posé arabesque at the end of his variation you truly feel like he is reaching for a purpose in life, or his true love. In answer to his plea a vision of Aurora appears, all in white, summoned by the Lilac Fairy.

I’ve always wondered what exactly the spirits are that appear at this point in Sleeping Beauty: Are they the dream versions of the other ladies asleep in the castle? (In which case, what are the men up to?) Or are they woodland versions of the Wili’s in Giselle? Or are they simply the Lilac Fairies attendants who are dressing appropriately for the setting? Whatever they are, they frame Aurora and the Prince throughout Act II, blocking the Prince’s way as he tries to capture this vision. Once they finally meet, Bonelli and Cojocaru and fantastic together with really smooth partnering and a good emotional connection. Cojocaru’s Act II variation is lovely, with astonishingly fast feet on her bourées. I always love the small diagonal of posé turns with frappés mid-turn – such inventive choreography!

You know how the rest of the story goes: Lilac Fairy takes Prince to castle; they bypass Carabosse and her spells; the Prince places a kiss on the lips of Aurora; Carabosse is struck down by lightning; the castle awakens and the King immediately suggests Aurora and the Prince marry (I guess he doesn’t like to wait around).

Act III

Act III takes place at Aurora and the Prince’s wedding. Lots of storybook characters arrive (still have no idea why Bluebeard, Beauty & the Beast et al are there – I tend to think of them as fancy dress guests and it makes it marginally more rational!) before the happy couple appear.

I’m not a huge fan of the Cats or Wolf and Red Riding Hood. They’re funny the first time but choreographically they’re not particularly interesting. They’re danced well in this production though – I can’t tell who the Cats or Wolf are, but Red Riding Hood is the sweet Iohna Loots (who was Clara in the Nutcracker recording on Digital Theatre). There’s a very nice Pas de Trois from Morera, Chapman and Hristov although I wish this was a bit longer and more substantial (like the pas de trois in Swan Lake). The true stars of the divertissements though are Florine/Bluebird – the gorgeous Sarah Lamb and Yohei Sasaki. Sasaki has a really nice sense of ballonne making him seem to float through the air at times, and Lamb is pure grace with a pleasing crystalline quality to her dancing. Speaking of Lamb, here is a great video from her and Steven McRae discussing the technical challenges of the roles:

The ballet culminates in a glorious Grand Pas de Deux from Cojocaru and Bonelli. Both dancers seem to really enjoy the music and fill it with their dancing: it is a delight to watch those lovely long penchées. My favourite moment in possibly all classical pas de deuxs is in Sleeping Beauty: the en dedans pirouettes to fish dives. No matter how many times I see them, they still take my breath away – how do they do it?! This is topped off with the seemingly magical no-handed fish dive to end the opening section. Bonelli then excels in his variation – textbook cabrioles and tours en l’air that are so inspiring to watch. Cojocaru’s variation shows off such delicate pointe work, whilst she still emphasises the innocence of Aurora. More textbook cabrioles from Bonelli (love the transition into attitude releve) start the coda before Cojocaru joins him. The pair are perfectly in sync for the arabesque hops backwards and we finish with the ‘I-don’t-know-how-she-doesn’t-punch-him-in-the-nose’ pirouettes with mid-turn arm shift from 1st to 2nd to 5th.

Finally there is a reprise of all the Act III dancers in the final Czardas (or is that a Mazurka?) before the curtain falls. All in all this is a fantastic performance and production of Sleeping Beauty – and proof why it is the Royal Ballet’s signature work.

I’ve been lucky enough to see three superb live performances in the last month: Cuthbertson/Golding, Kobayashi/Bonelli (a ROH Student Amphitheatre performance) and Nuñez/Bonelli, and it’s really interesting to compare the interpretations between all those and this recording. I don’t think Sleeping Beauty will ever be my favourite piece (there’s a little too much “filler”) for me, but it’s high points are some of the greatest moments in all of ballet. This recording is a real treat and well worth watching. If you want to get a copy, it’s available on Digital Theatre right now!

It’s great to see two new ballets from the Royal Ballet on Digital Theatre, which now has all three Tchaikovsky ballets, along with Ashton’s Sylvia. I would now love to see some more substantially dramatic works on there (maybe Manon or Romeo & Juliet), and it would be great to have other British ballet companies putting digital recordings on this platform – BRB’s Cinderella or ENB’s Le Corsaire would be great!

Have you seen Sleeping Beauty (recorded or live)? What did you think? Or do you have any ideas of what you’d like to see next on Digital Theatre? Let me know in the comments below.

Until next time, keep on dancing!

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In the interest of full disclosure, Digital Theatre provided me with a complimentary copy of The Sleeping Beauty for the purpose of reviewing. However, I did not let this influence my review in any way and all I have said above is completely impartial.

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