In the August edition of Dancing Times Magazine there is an interesting article which looks back on the history of the “Soviet Sleeping Beauty”, the version the Mariinsky have brought to this tour in London (they also have a Vikharev reconstruction of Petipa’s older version which is currently shelved though perhaps not permanently). According to Nadine Meisner, author of the article, the version we now see is a collage of the 1952 Konstantin Sergeyev work which replaced Petipa’s original to better appeal to the demands of that era. Thus, large chunks of ballet mime have been cut, the fairies given new steps to dance and the Panorama/Aurora Vision scene recreated entirely.
The Sleeping Beauty is a ballet that can easily fall into overly sweet & cute territory and Sergeyev’s version seems not ashamed of going into full twee mode, with the garland waltz a parade of cherub-like children, too many fairy tale characters (most of them do not get a solo) crowding the festivities in the final act and with less layers of symbolism to compensate. The lack of sensitive handling of the tale is for me its biggest letdown. Take for instance the fairies in the prologue. What I adore about the Royal Ballet’s version is that choreographic allusions from each of these fairy variations are discreetly built into 16 year old Aurora’s solos showing us that she is the sum of all gifts bestowed on her: purity, grace, generosity, musicality, etc. Here Aurora’s bond with the fairies goes unnoticed.
The critic Clive Barnes had noted after seeing it in 1961 that “the Kirov take a less dramatic view of the ballet than we in England”. There is less delicacy, no doubt due to the historical context in which it was conceived, and this shows in the toned down mime which omits the Lilac Fairy’s reassurances that should Aurora prick her finger she will merely fall asleep, not die. Or in the beginning of the vision scene where the Lilac Fairy does not have to convince Prince Desiré that she has a cure for his blues, it’s almost as if he knows she is a woman on a mission and he’s onboard immediately. Aurora’s development from playful adolescence to mature woman at her wedding is never fully revealed to the audience either.
The spindle – or the lack thereof - is another issue I take with the Konstantin Sergeyev text. It is the object of Carabosse’s curse to Aurora: she will prick her finger on a spindle and die. To avoid this, the King banishes all prickly objects from his kingdom. Fast forward 16 years and we see Aurora triumphing as the center of all attentions in her birthday party until she sees this shiny, pointy object that she has never seen before; think of all psychological connotations that are fitting here, the allure of danger, teenage rebellion. She has got to have that spindle, grabs it enthusiastically to the dismay of her parents, pricks self, brings about the curse. In Sergeyev’s version all this wonderful symbology is lost to us because Carabosse hides the spindle in a flower bouquet which she offers to the princess, just like Gamzatti does to Nikiya in La Bayadère. Aurora never even registers the presence of a spindle. And how insensitive this is.
But I don’t wish to imply that the production is entirely devoid of virtues. Ekaterina Kondaurova is a warm Lilac fairy and her dancing is magic in itself, so secure and at the same time so fluid, the choreography giving her more to do than elsewhere. I find the Panorama scene ideal (despite its early conclusion due to the Lilac Fairy’s boat malfunctioning!). It’s here that we can marvel at the Mariinsky’s solid corps and where Evgenia Obraztsova looks like a true vision which Igor Kolb’s prince Désiré treats as the most precious thing he has ever laid eyes on. There are a lot more opportunities for Prince Désiré to display his bravura and drive, as he vividly responds to the vision of Aurora and battles with Carabosse (superbly played by Islom Baimuradov) and minions. This prince will do whatever it takes to find the princess of his dreams, Kolb’s every step and gesture indicating this urge.
Sergeyev also treats us to a wonderful version of the wedding pas de deux: this particular choreography of Aurora’s variation, beginning with the hops on pointe and arms that sing, is the moment I long for the most all evening and here, thanks to Obraztsova, it is full of musicality and grace. Obraztsova & Kolb are elegant, noble and entirely convincing. If there’s little symbolism at least there’s plenty of classicism for us to take home.