Reflection on The Sleeping Beauty

Ashton used to say that watching The Sleeping Beauty was like having a private lesson in the art of composition in classical ballet (Kavanagh 1996, p.309).  The richness of Petipa’s choreographic text (despite its mutability and variation from one production to another) and the particular poetic and historic symbolism of the work, give it layers of significance and the potential for depth in individual artistic interpretation; to my mind according it the equivalence in status of such canonical musical masterpieces as the Bach cello suites, which invite artists to measure themselves and make a definitive personal statement of their understanding through their performance of the work.

In Late Work we explore tiny sections of the choreography and conceptual elements of The Sleeping Beauty as a trigger for improvisations and for the composition of new solos that in some ways examine our own pasts as dancers; and throughout the piece it remains a source of reference and imagery.  Jennifer had always felt an affinity with the role of Aurora, and chose that we focused on the first and third act solos.  My own attachment to the work is perhaps more diffuse.  It was the first ballet I ever saw, in the Royal Ballet’s Touring Company version with designs by Oliver Messel; and nightmare visions of Carabosse’s gnarled hand and snake entwined stick coming round my bedroom door troubled my nights for some years – not to mention the cobwebs… Over years of participating in different productions and dancing many roles my admiration for this problematic and challenging masterpiece has not diminished, and if ever I were to have the opportunity of producing one of the classics this is the one I would choose.  So it has been a joy to savour and dissect in practice some of its choreographic felicities, and ponder their significance.

Following this microscopic inspection of fragments, a welcome opportunity to draw back and take in the compositional whole by watching again the English National Ballet in performance of the Kenneth MacMillan production currently touring.  I had seen this previously in Oxford and had some misgivings about the production in terms of the company’s presentational style.  These remain and it feels worthwhile trying to articulate them as they seem indicative of wider malaise in ballet today.

The Sleeping Beauty is about spatial architecture, but not simply in terms of abstract design. The mime passages and beautiful pas d’action of the Prologue communicate a courtly order, hierarchy, etiquette and courtesy which should inform the whole ballet; it is about the relationships between the people on the stage.  Having recently spent two days on baroque dance with erudite expert Nicola Gaines I saw ENB’s performance through historically tinted glasses, as a tribute to ballet’s history; from its origins in the court of the Sun King evoked in the Prologue through to the bosky romanticism of the 19th century of the Vision scene, drawing the Prince away from his eighteenth century diversions.  Tchaikovsky’s knowing score supports such an interpretation with its subtle pastiche and historical reference.

ENB’s production has been mounted and rehearsed with evident care.  However given MacMillan’s sense of drama and abiding interest in the psychological motivations of characters, I could not help wondering how truly the company’s outward focused presentational style might reflect his intentions as a producer of this classic work?  It felt as though the focus of attention was on the dancing as steps, shapes and technical challenges, rather than on the detail of the choreography as expressing social setting or narrative. Thus the fairies inclined in a low reverence in a perfect line – but addressed to whom, given that the King and Queen were placed upstage of them?  Catalabutte was played as a stock comedy bumbling old man, rather than the dignified embodiment of court hierarchy; the sense of shocking and subversive debasement when Carabosse viciously plucks out his hair was thus diminished.

Erina Takahashi’s rock solid balances in the Rose Adage became a showing off of technique, not a symbolic expression of Aurora’s choice, and her burgeoning independence.  The dramatic and musical logic of Aurora giving her hand to every suitor in turn was sacrificed to a lengthy balance; spectacular at the time, but undermining the choreography’s narrative intention.  In Act 2 I was won over by Yonah Acosta’s gentlemanly demeanour as the Prince.  But in the majestic last act pas de deux it was hard to be moved when these two accomplished dancers were busily showing off poses to the audience rather than embodying through perfect classical forms the idealised relationship between them.  There are moments when it seems to me that Aurora and her prince should only be aware of each other, that the simple gestures of giving and accepting of a hand should be a potent expression of love, not simply a preparation for another arduous sequence of turns and tricks.

The female soloists exhibited taut athleticism and ripped musculature, their steely legs a match for the dazzling pointe-work of Petipa’s solos.  But I longed for more expressive torsos, the nuance of épaulement to bring emotional light and shade and a sense of dance emanating from the core of being, a richer more varied palette of movement ”quality” to differentiate the dancing.  Perhaps a greater awareness of intention should inform every movement even in this most classical of showpieces; once reduced to the technical vocabulary of virtuosity, however impressive and intricate, the steps cease to engage.  From more than one who attended I had the impression that the audience had lost connection in the final act; only the easy storytelling and light-hearted mimicry of Puss in Boots and the White Cat generating enthusiasm.

The Sleeping Beauty fairy tale lacks the drama of human dilemma, personal conflict and resolution; its characters can seem paper stereotypes.  Yet like other great fairy tales it is a parable about life, and Petipa and Tchaikovsky’s great version offers huge potential for speaking to audiences on many levels, and for touching the heart.  Arguably this is not best achieved by directing performers’ attention and projection directly to the audience, but instead by drawing the viewer’s attention into the poetic symbolism of the dance.  If presentation of this ballet is not to degenerate into mere gymnastic spectacle, or revert to the kind of decadent late 19th century opulent display that the Ballets Russes broke away from, dancers need to look again at how the story and ideas it encapsulates are conveyed through the dancing, and rediscover the expressive character of Petipa’s wonderful choreographic invention.

Susie Crow

6th March 2013

Kavanagh, J. 1996  Secret Muses: The Life of Frederick Ashton  London, Faber and Faber