The Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production of Tchaikovsky’s most grandiose ballet does not disappoint. A young princess succumbs to an evil fairy’s curse and falls asleep for 100 years, to be woken by her prince. Unsurprisingly, they all live happily ever after, and this traditional interpretation provides all the fantastical glitz required.
BRB’s dancing is exceptionally good. This is one of the rare occasions when the corps de ballet achieves almost complete synchronicity, and there is something deeply satisfying about watching the symmetric geometric evolution. Prince Florimund’s journey through the wood in Act 3 is particularly stunning.
Jenna Roberts dances Princess Aurora with elegance and grace. Her first appearance is with the Rose Adagio, famously a very difficult sequence involving standing on point like a music-box ballerina while her suitors turn her round (promenade) one at a time. As each new suitor comes along (there are four), Aurora must remain in position but lift her hand to swap to the next man, meaning she must maintain her precarious position completely unaided. Petipa decided that this sequence should be performed at the start and at the end of the piece, thus making the whole event entirely nerve-wracking for the dancer. Roberts passed the test with flying colours.
Iain Mackay dances Prince Florimund effortlessly and with complete assurance. There was not a moment when he looked out of control, and his confidence fed into those with whom he danced. I seriously doubt whether he even broke a sweat –he is a very impressive dancer.
Pas de deux involving the Florimund and Aurora are quite simply beautiful. In perfect time, and at absolute ease with each other, Roberts and Mackay are sublime.
The costumes are wonderfully elaborate, evoking the spirit of the Sun King through their detail, variety, and rich colourings. Given the complexity of their design, one might think that a simpler set would be in order. Slightly unfortunately, gold clothing against a gold backdrop can make it rather difficult to distinguish action from scenery. The opulence of the whole borders on the oppressive, and there are times when one might be forgiven for thinking there was a deliberate attempt at camouflage.
As with all fairy tales the story is a metaphor. In this case, a young girl accidentally pricks herself and is put out of action for some considerable period. Another curious facet of the set is a very large metaphor in the middle of the backdrop.
My gripe is musical, and this is the reason why I have not given 5 stars. It is very hard for an orchestra to play with much enthusiasm a piece they’ve already played a thousand times, and the theatre does not have a particularly resonant acoustic. As such, the warm bed of sound required from a pit orchestra is missing. I had to resort to the method of cupping my ears in my hands to achieve any sense of blended tone. Tchaikovsky is such a brilliant orchestrator that lack-lustre performances are perhaps particularly noticeable with his works. There are also some fiddly passages in Act 4 with the fairytale character sets, especially for the flute.
Additional highlights include the splendidly menacing Fairy Carabosse and her minions. They briefly perform what looks for all the world like a pirates’ hornpipe, and announce their arrivals and departures from the stage with various pyrotechnics.
The piece ends with a rousing rendition of a 16th Century French tune, Vive Henri IV, which sounds to modern ears, incongruously, like a communist anthem. In fact Tchaikovsky included it to flatter the Tsar, which must surely have been a fairly safe career move.
Go and see this production for the dancing – it is fabulous.