With apologies to the balletophobes, it’s Aurora time again. And on this occasion I don’t disagree with anything in the Arts Desk review by my eloquent colleague Ismene Brown, who took me along to the English National Ballet Sleeping Beauty (photos - only four to choose from, sadly, which is why you'll see them so often - by Patrick Baldwin for ENB). Perhaps, with infinitely less knowledge of the steps and technical difficulties involved, I have more than just one reservation about ace ballerina and ENB artistic director Tamara Rojo’s Princess, pictured above with Vadim Muntagirov.
It’s not just that she goes to the altar untransfigured by love, but that there’s not a hint of girlishness about her 16-year-old in Act One. She tackles the absurd number of early challenges with aplomb, but the face is mask-like, except for when the mouth opens and closes in preparation for a hair-raising sequence. Which only, for me, highlights the narrative brilliance of Matthew Bourne in making Aurora a bit – Ismene thinks way too much – of a wild child.
But otherwise the shows are not really comparable: one is a consistent piece of novel storytelling, a dance-panto, whereas this lavish recreation of Kenneth MacMillan’s Petipa-faithful homage for the American Ballet Theatre preserves the aristocratic tradition without quite pickling it in aspic.
You’ve got to do it at the highest level, though, and ENB can. The Nicholas Georgiadis costumes are a wonder; as Ismene points out, they are as lavishly detailed for minor figures like the nurses, the Puritan spinning women and the haughty, stylishly hatted ladies of the Prince's court as they are for the individual fairies and regal mortals. Peter Farmer’s old-fashioned leafy painted flats are a bit minimal by comparison, but provide a pretty framework. You also need to be able to cast the character variations from strength, too, and this was for me the most amazing aspect of the production.
The highlight, perhaps, is the Prologue’s Pas de Six. What extraordinary patterns Petipa demands from the 6x6x6 combinations of fairies, cavaliers and lilac entourage, and how perfectly that's realised here. What character there was in Nancy Osbaldeston’s finger-pointing Golden Vine and Shiori Kase’s sweetest of songbirds.
Maybe Kase’s smile is in default mode, but she used it to equally winning effect as Princess Florine in Act Three, partnered by the muscular but agile-legged Yonah (nephew of Carlos) Acosta, confirming the promise we’d already enjoyed in Le jeune homme et la mort. Osbaldeston shone again as Red Riding Hood, and lest we thought the royal couple’s thunder might be stolen, Muntagirov's immensely likeable Prince used his tall personage to peerless advantage in his tarantella. Rojo does aristocratic best, and was fine as a glacial Vision Aurora in Act Two. It would be hard to find better personifications of Good versus Evil than Daria Klimentová’s imperturbable Lilac Fairy and James Streeter’s Carabosse, memorably dressed as a wraith Queen Elizabeth who gestures stylishly enough to avoid toppling over into camp.
I always wonder who dictates the tempi, conductor or dancers; two of the Prologue variations as well as Aurora’s in Act Three feel way too slow. There were a few smudgy ensembles but overall Gavin Sutherland led a confident performance. No doubt about it, though, this is the highest-level Gesamtkunstwerk Beauty on show. The regions who’ve already seen it must have wondered what hit them (Oxford and Southampton have yet to benefit). And you may well get a different Aurora and Prince, who should be as good if not better. But don’t be too timid to try out the Bourne Beauty too.