Talking about ENB’s The Sleeping Beauty

Alina Cojocaru as Princess Aurora in Kenneth MacMillan's Sleeping Beauty

Having just returned from a quick trip to Los Angeles to catch ABT in our last ballet of summer season – a very enjoyable matinee performance of La Bayadère led by Devon Teuscher (a gorgeous Nikiya), Christine Shevchenko (a perfect Gamzatti) and Joo Won Ahn (a solid Solor) – we look back at another favorite of the season, ENB’s The Sleeping Beauty, which we had caught at the London Coliseum back in June and which led to the following chat during a long drive to Richmond:

Alina Cojocaru and Artists of English National Ballet in Kenneth MacMillan's Sleeping Beauty.

Alina Cojocaru and Artists of English National Ballet in Kenneth MacMillan’s Sleeping Beauty. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

Linda - We are on our way to the Royal Ballet School Summer Fair in Richmond and, as we have a long drive ahead of us, we’re talking about the ballet The Sleeping Beauty, as we have just seen it in English National Ballet’s production, the Kenneth MacMillan one, a.k.a. best tutus in the whole world.

Emilia - You had told me about MacMillan’s production (which was originally choreographed for ABT oddly enough), but I had never seen it staged, even though we have both seen a large share of Sleeping Beauties in the past.

L - Off the top of your head, can you remember how many productions have you have seen, E.?

E – Other than the Royal Ballet’s, I have seen ABT’s most recent one at its New York premiere and during the company’s tour to Paris, the Mariinsky’s, the Bolshoi’s which is one of my favourites (so opulent!), and Birmingham Royal Ballet’s which has quite a beautiful awakening pas de deux.

L – Let me remember which ones I have seen. In addition to the ones you have mentioned, I saw the new production for the Ballet Nacional del Sodre (Uruguay’s National Ballet) a couple of months back (it had some crazy costumes!). I have also seen some recorded productions such as Dutch National Ballet’s (which is the same as BRB’s I believe), Paris Opera Ballet’s and Teatro alla Scala’s. The recording of Dutch National Ballet’s production features Sofiane Sylve being amazing, but I have to say, the Ratmansky production for ABT is very special and so is the Vikharev reconstruction for the Mariinsky, which I’ve only seen on video…

E - Indeed, we need to make that distinction with the Mariinsky, because they have two productions: like you, I’ve only seen the Vikharev reconstruction on video and the one the company usually tours is a tired production by Konstantin Sergeyev, very reminiscent of the Soviet era.

L – …those wigs, let’s not talk about the wigs!

Rina Kanehara and Daniel McCormick as Princess Florine and the Bluebird

Rina Kanehara and Daniel McCormick as Princess Florine and the Bluebird. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

E – but going back to the MacMillan one, I am really very impressed. It is absolutely beautiful. The costumes and sets are elegant, the colour palettes are so stunning….

L – I guess The Sleeping Beauty can often resort to a twee, “Disneyfied” look (sorry ABT, but your previous 2007 production…no, just no!). Aurora’s birthday costume can be soooo pink! And yes, Georgiadis gave Aurora a pink tutu in this one, but it is subdued and classy.

E – The shades complement those from the fairy’s tutus. If I have one thing to criticise in this production, however, it is the Garland dance, and I wonder if it was because of where we were sitting. I wonder if this is something you need to see from above to appreciate patterns, because to me it didn’t feel like there was much of a pattern or structure.

L – Yeah, I don’t remember very well the details of when I saw it for the first time in Japan, with the Noriko Kobayashi Ballet. This time around, I saw it twice with ENB: the second time I took a ballet newbie friend and when the dancers were doing turns with the garlands, she commented that it looked rather awkward, which suggests to me that there might be a mismatch between the choreography and the portion of the stage that is available to the dancers. Given MacMillan originally staged it in the US, I need to research this (Future Linda: the production premiered at Auditorium Theater, Chicago), because if it was made for a bigger stage, I would understand there would be more space to do those turns with the garlands.

E – So it’s possible that dancers might have been constrained here. Talking about ABT’s productions: one thing that I thought was absolutely delightful in the new Ratmansky production, was that in the end Carabosse is forgiven and joins the celebrations and in the final tableau, you have Aurora and Prince Désiré blessed by not only the Lilac Fairy, but by Carabosse as well, and that is so cool. But in most productions, you don’t get that, although here I liked how Carabosse looks like the Virgin Queen (i.e. Elizabeth I) and loved the way James Streeter characterised her.

L – Yes, I did think there was something softer about his performance of Carabosse. It didn’t strike me as sheer evil, but there was some humanity underneath the “Elizabethan cartoon” façade.

James Streeter as Carabosse and English National Ballet artists in MacMillan's Sleeping Beauty.

James Streeter as Carabosse and English National Ballet artists in MacMillan’s Sleeping Beauty. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

E – That is why I was almost surprised that “she” didn’t patch things up with the royals!

L – In the second show I attended (with the Alexandrova cast), Stina Quagebeur was also a stunning Carabosse, but in a very different way. More like the traditional picture of Carabosse I have in my head (like Maleficent, from Disney’s classic animation). And I truly appreciate that you can get two different types of portrayals for the same character because it allows you to contrast and appreciate the different shades dancers can bring to a role.

E – It takes a great company to stage this ballet convincingly and ENB’s level of dancing was amazing. Shiori Kase did such a fantastic job in that thankless solo of the Lilac Fairy. And you can’t get more perfect leads in this ballet than Joseph Caley and Alina Cojocaru. They were beautifully paired and Alina was on top form. I don’t even remember when I had seen her last in The Sleeping Beauty (probably alongside Johan Kobborg in the Royal Ballet’s production), but she always makes this role special – it brought me such nostalgia!

L – Maybe it was back in 2009, so almost ten years ago? She is still the most perfect Aurora in my book, because she is one of the few dancers who can take you from the naive 16-year old in the first act, to the radiant woman in the last act. And I particularly appreciate the details such as in the Rose Adagio, where she always acknowledges the suitors in unique ways, and her parents, in a very conversational kind of way. This is something I don’t see in most Auroras. I know they are probably trying to get through all the balances which are crazy difficult. So those characterisation touches are very special.

Alina Cojocaru as Princess Aurora in MacMillan's Sleeping Beauty

Alina Cojocaru as Princess Aurora in MacMillan’s Sleeping Beauty. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

E – Who was the Lilac Fairy in the second performance that you saw?

L – Alison McWhinney, which we got as one of the fairies on opening night.. She was lovely, very different to Shiori, but a dancer that I like to see with ENB and I’m glad that she is getting this role, because I think it suits her temperament.

E – One dancer that really stood out for me, both as a fairy and as Princess Florine was Rina Kanehara. So stylish…

L – … Gorgeous, so musical. I should mention, that in the second show with Maria Alexandrova who was guesting, Aaron Robison, who was cast as Prince Désiré, suffered an injury and Joseph Caley had to come and literally save the day. I was a bit apprehensive because of the slight height mismatch, but I have to admit that Joe was an absolute hero. He nailed it and I was so impressed. True professionalism when you see a dancer come through last minute with minimal rehearsal time and fully commit.

E – One thing we should mention: we spotted Chase Johnsey in the third act, making ballet history as you probably know from the recent New York Times article. It was a delight to see him on stage with English National Ballet. Anything else we should say?

L – If you were to go and see one Sleeping Beauty here in the UK. I would definitely recommend this one. Not to say that the BRB or RB versions are not beautiful, because they are also stunning but ENB’s MacMillan production is very special and evocative.

We started The Ballet Bag in April 2009 with the mission to prove that ballet is not stuffy, old fashioned and inaccessible; that it is quite the opposite: relevant, fresh and topical. With the aim to Give Ballet a New Spin we try to show it under a different light. When writing our capsule biographies, ballet fact cards, review roundups and commentary on social media, we cross it over with other art forms and cultural references (pop culture, cinema, rock music – ie. other things we love!).

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