English National Ballet’s ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ at the London Coliseum

Our dance correspondent Boyana Buyuklieva enjoys a lavish and fantastical production of The Sleeping Beauty at the London Coliseum.

If you’re one for opulent, classical ballet, then you won’t be disappointed by the English National Ballet’s latest production of The Sleeping Beauty. Currently on show at the London Coliseum, this new performance is a feast for the eyes. From the scenery and costumes, to the choreography and staging: all is just as rich and dramatic as that created for the original symphonic score from 1889.

The ballet starts solely with Tchaikovsky’s epic introduction against a closed curtain. At first we hear a cacophony of sound reminiscent of a divine thunderstorm, but suddenly this clears, giving way to a delicate and sweet woodwind melody, with complimentary strings. Much of this musical introduction reflects the fantastic fairy story of Princess Aurora, the famed beauty of the title: a mild child, who by an innocent mistake becomes entangled in a supernatural conflict that sets the course of her mortal destiny, complete with tragedy, romance and catharsis.

English National Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty. Photography by Jason Bell. Copyright English National Ballet.

In Act I, the curtains draw to reveal an ambient and lush garden palace. The set, designed by the late Peter Farmer, looks like a skillfully painted wet-on-wet watercolour with sharp, ink detailing. Similarly delicate and dreamlike is the stage of the sleeping palace, which is created using screens of washed cobalt and phthalo greens that give deep, dramatic shadows to the overgrown forest paysage. The scenery belongs to a world of lovingly hand-crafted, gracefully aged Victorian toys. Farmer’s scenography for this production is a marvel in its own right.

The set for the Prince’s spell-breaking kiss is equally as magical as the plot: Farmer crafts a distorted perspective of a hall with a prominent row of ceiling-high windows. Neil Austin’s lighting design works beautifully with the windows – initially dark and grim, they make the hall look like the ruins of a castle, abandoned and forgotten amid a crisis. Subtle changes in lighting, from dimmed cold white to a bright and warm sepia colour, transform the set into what feels like a Dior commercial directed by Sofia Coppola – one set in a sun-kissed Parisian suite overlooking the Seine on a lazy Sunday morning.

English National Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty. Photography and copyright Laurent Liotardo.

The costume designs from late Nicholas Georgiadis shimmer and glitter in silk and gold. Everyone on stage is adorned with the obligatory head piece, which ranges from hats with ostrich feathers to gem-encrusted tiaras. Only Prince Désiré (Aaron Robinson) is left to flaunt his dashing pompadour. Robinson does not disappoint as golden-boy Prince Désiré – hardly a surprise given his previous success as Romeo in ENB’s anniversary production of Romeo and Juliet.  

English National Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty. Joseph Caley as Prince Désiré. Photography and copyright Laurent Liotardo.

Guest artist to the ENB, Maria Alexandrova made for an expressive and foxy Princess Aurora. Alexandrova creates a sweetheart character endowed with grace, but also one that mischievously reaches out for more command and presence on stage. Her hands seem to be in a constant allongé position instead of being restfully relaxed in the classic soft curve. Her character comes across when she teases the four princes with emphasised breaks in her steps, keeping the suitors on their feet and at an arm’s length. Also, after pricking her finger on the spindle, she dances confidently across the stage and boasts to anyone in her way of how unaffected she is by the little wound. It’s almost with a sly arrogance that she reassures the court she is alright (that is, until she isn’t).

A special mention merits the 16-strong ‘Dance of the Maids of Honour and Pages’ with their floral hoops at the Princess’ birthday. This is a scene with costumes the colour of caramel cake and vanilla cream, with croquante and rasberries in-between. A very sweet sixteen celebration indeed. Kenneth MacMillan’s arrangement is spacious, light and fluttering.

English National Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty, here featuring the ‘Dance of the Maids of Honour and Pages’. Photography and copyright Laurent Liotardo.

Unexpectedly brilliant were the Bluebird (Fernando Coloma) and Princess Florine (Julia Conway), as well as the Puss in the Boots (Van le Ngoc) with the White Cat (Princess Florine) in the final act. Coloma was immaculate in his cabrioles and firebird leaps giving principal lead, Prince Désiré, a run for his money. Just as one might begin to tire from the engrossing intensity of the baroque costumes and breath-taking leaps, the feline duo provided a much needed breath of humour and playfulness, all executed with what felt like sheer enjoyment.

English National Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty. Daniel McCormick as The Bluebird and Rina Kanehara as Princess Florine. Photography and copyright Laurent Liotardo.

The Sleeping Beauty is a story told and retold in various visual iterations and by many generations of performers. This current version by the English National Ballet is an exhilarating distillation of what has come before. The performance is so lush that it is difficult to reflect on in a fair manner because the closer one looks, the more one notices the care put into this production. The richness of the production alone makes it worth seeing again. Thus the ENB’s Sleeping Beauty does justice to a truly timeless classic of the genre.

English National Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty is on at the London Coliseum until June 16th. For more information click here: https://www.ballet.org.uk/production/sleeping-beauty/#venue-dates