The English National Ballet Company under the artistic direction of Tamara Rojo arrived in Oxford for five days of performances at The New Theatre. Its offering was Kenneth MacMillan’s re-imagining of the great master Marius Petipa’s choreography for The Sleeping Beauty. In so many important ways the 22nd February performance I saw did not disappoint: the technical prowess of not only the principle dancers, but the well-trained corps de ballet was impressive; the Nicholas Georgiadis costumes were crisp and sumptuous; and the Tchaikovsky score paced at a galloping speed while not missing the moments of winsome beauty in waltz sequences and delicacy in moments of syncopated choreography.  But there are some caveats as well as some moments of special enjoyment.

I think that even with Tchaikovsky writing at the height of Russian romanticism a huge orchestra needs some nuancing of volume and in my opinion this orchestra overplayed its timpani. There is a sense in which the courtly and royal settings demand fanfare, but fanfare needs to be set apart rather than included in a general and unrelenting pomp and circumstance. That said, the playing of music for the divertissements in the final act was some of the trickiest and most delightfully executed. And as suggested above, when the orchestra was playing the magical waltz music, so much a keynote of Tchaikovsky’s ballet music, the balance was fine tuned.

The ballet’s Prologue is choreographed to represent courtly order. A girl has been born to royalty and the celebration of an ordered hierarchy is presented in dances suggestive of not only the social order but the order of the natural world. The corps de ballet present in geometrical formations and in costumes sparkling like gemstones, their dancing stunning in its precision. I found the soloist Anaïs Chalendard, as The Fairy of the Woodland Glade, particularly noteworthy. Her entire performance was au pointe – subtly difficult but given with light grace and seeming ease. The interruption of orderliness (just before it becomes a sense of static, I might add) occurs when Carabosse arrives with his/her entourage of black attendants – flying in like bats out of hell. The choreography for this is marvelous and was danced/acted with terrific gusto and strong mime by Fabian Reimar. It seemed like an injection of energy into what might otherwise have gone on rather statically, its geometry repetitive. The Lilac Fairy is a key role which demands a stronger sense of command and authority than was conveyed by the graceful but somewhat underwhelming Lauretta Summerscales.

The First Act that follows opens with a joyful pastoral celebrating Aurora’s 16th birthday and the arrival of four suitors. Soft coral pinks and lime green colours provide a Watteau-like delicacy to the scene; and the corps dancing with garlanded hoops delight with a marvel of fluid movement. What had bordered on stiff ceremony in The Prologue melts away into a relaxed and joyful atmosphere. At the opening of the act there is the charming incident of the four maids and their knitting needles having to be shooed off the stage and threatened with punishment because of the curse which Carabosse had predicted would fall upon the princess through the pricking of a needle.

Erina Takahashi as Princess Aurora executed with technical aplomb the spikey sequences required in partnership with the four suitors. Her balances in the notoriously difficult passing-of-the-Rose were well-achieved. But her concentration on the technical aspect militated against having the energy to become a youthful and engaging young woman. I saw no dramatic character at work here.

The young Yonah Acosta did project some dramatic responses and engaged dramatically with the narrative. His build is stocky and he will need to fight that to achieve the elevation he needs to astonish with the jeté leaps and tours looked for in male principals. But his performance was certainly that of an emerging dancer who will be sought after and add star material to the Company. The setting for his appearance in Act II is an effective contrast to the preceding Prologue and Act I. It is a man’s strong world expressed in deep brown colours, heavy clothing on both the men and women who are participating in a forest hunt. The dark lighting, the swaying backdrops of trees and the shifting into a dream world all add to a deepening atmosphere and the entry of traditional romance.

The Divertissements of the last act were uneven. I found Puss in Boots and the White Cat delightfully enacted but was disappointed in the lack-lustre performance of the Bluebird pas-de-deux

The Sleeping Beauty is a long and exceedingly demanding ballet – a touchstone of classical ballet and the litmus by which a ballet company is tested.  English National Ballet has achieved no small measure of success in the sumptuous look of this production, in the precision of the technical dancing and the youthful energies of its corps. What remains for it to consider is how to achieve the dramatic character work that will add radiance, emotional weight and the unexpected to its production performances. I have no doubt that under the artistic direction of Tamara Rojo this will happen.

Susannah Harris-Wilson

23 March 2013