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About the Change

Royal Danish Ballet

‘The Sleeping Beauty’ -  Tornerose

December 2010
Copenhagen, Royal Theatre

by Jane Simpson

© Henrik Stenberg

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Denmark is another country: they see things differently there. In particular, the Royal Danish Ballet sees Marius Petipa differently from almost every other Western ballet company: it had a strong, vital tradition of its own long before Petipa came on the scene, and although it has been touched by Russian influences at various times in its history, it owes its unique style and its world fame to its own great choreographer, August Bournonville. Director Nikolai Hübbe wants Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty in the repertoire - every major company needs to show it can dance them - but given the way the company freely updates its own masterpieces, it's unrealistic to expect that Petipa's works will be handled with the same reverence in Copenhagen as they are in London. Even so I was quite surprised that early critical comment about Christopher Wheeldon's new production of Sleeping Beauty seems almost entirely pragmatic: the questions asked are not about stylistic or textual authenticity but about theatrical effectiveness.

Wheeldon's brief was to make a Petipa-based version, coloured by his own upbringing in the Royal Ballet's traditional productions. On top of this, his aim was to make the result Danish-specific, tailored to the strengths and abilities of the company and to the taste of the Copenhagen audience; that turns out to mean more story and less emphasis on pure dancing. (Quite the opposite, interestingly, of Peter Martins's minimally plotted Swan Lake which the company had been dancing only a few weeks earlier.) In other words he's taken some of the classical grandeur out of it and replaced it with a more human, demi-caractère feel - a long way from the Maryinsky, but a much better fit for the present company.


Gudrun Bojesen in a publicity image for Christopher Wheeldon's The Sleeping Beauty
© Henrik Stenberg
Click image for larger version, or one that fills the browser window

The most obvious change comes from Wheeldon's wish to shift some of the focus of our interest from Aurora to her Prince (Desiré in this version) - to make it the story of his spiritual growth as well as hers. Combining this with the idea of leading the audience into the ballet by anchoring it in modern times, he starts by showing us Desiré as a small boy in a twentieth-century art gallery: his attention is caught by a painting of a scene from Sleeping Beauty and his interest is encouraged by an attendant who we later realise is a disguised Lilac Fairy, but he's too young and runs away, frightened, when the painting starts to come to life. Years later, as a young man (and after we've seen the first half of the ballet), he returns to the picture and this time the Lilac Fairy draws him through the canvas and into the fairy tale world, where we see him gradually change from a bewildered, passive spectator into a decisive, active participant, who can brush away Lilac's offered help and defeat Carabosse and her minions on his own.


Mette Bodtcher as the Lilac Fairy
in Christopher Wheeldon's The Sleeping Beauty
© Henrik Stenberg
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I like the concept but unfortunately there's a heavy price to pay, in the way Wheeldon and his dramaturg, Sophie Rask Andersen, impose their reading on the action, and - more importantly - on the music. I can accept that we have to lose the entire hunting scene - it would make no sense in this context - but it's much harder to forgive, for instance, the way the Prince's adventures take so much time that when he finally kisses Aurora awake he has to do it not at the height of that great crescendo but to the much quieter rapture of the Entr'acte, where it goes almost for nothing. My strongest criticism of the whole production, indeed, is the way so many of the big moments are muffed or thrown away. I'd like to see the drama much more strongly pointed - more magic with the pictures in the gallery (lighting - smoke - video - anything!), more sense of danger when Carabosse's creature steals the last spindle from the King's great bonfire, more time for us to see and understand the vision of Aurora, more insistence from the King when he threatens Carabosse with hanging, more, more ... Hit us harder - we can take it.

Of course there are other moments which work much better. Some are there perhaps as nods to Bournonville - Aurora's instant costume change at her first appearance echoes Teresina's in the underwater grotto in Napoli and the sudden appearance of the nymphs in the vision scene reminded me of James in the forest, bemused by the sylphs. Some are just fun, as when Puss-in-Boots, making his entrance just after the Bluebird pas de deux, spits out a mouthful of blue feathers. And some of the little human touches are charming, for instance when one of Aurora's friends steps out of the line-up to tell her gently that she's being silly about the spindle and she must hand it over to her mother. (Though as it turns out, she can't - it won't leave her hand and that's what makes her panic and prick her finger.) And I do like the idea that when Aurora wakes from her long sleep she has no idea what has happened to her until the Lilac Fairy explains the plot and introduces her to Desiré.

The choreography is credited to 'Christopher Wheeldon, after Marius Petipa', which turns out to mean that Wheeldon has left the three big set pieces - the Rose Adagio, the Bluebird and Princess Florine, and the Act 3 pas de deux - more or less as Petipa set them, but has tweaked, added to or replaced practically everything else. Some things I liked: a new ending to the Song Bird's variation, a new Garland Waltz so full of children and arriving Princes that for once it didn't seem too long, and a complete reworking of the Polonaise at the beginning of the last act, starting with a procession of little cooks bringing samples of the wedding banquet for Catalabutte's approval. Other alterations were less happy, and I often found myself wishing he'd left well alone; but the only real failure was the section using the music of the Jewels pas de quatre. It was danced by two couples, the women supposedly representing the younger selves of the Lilac Fairy and Carabosse (who in this version are reconciled by this stage). That's a hard concept to put across on stage, and as it meant they were wearing completely different costumes from each other and also that the 'young' Lilac borrowed the 'real' Lilac's solo from the Prologue, the whole thing looked bitty and rather pointless, with not enough interest in the rest of the choreography to make it worth while. I'd much rather have seen Red Riding Hood or Tom Thumb and his brothers, especially given the number of children in the audience at the afternoon performances.


Josee Howard and Eling Eliasson, with corps, in Christopher Wheeldon's The Sleeping Beauty
© Henrik Stenberg
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Wheeldon and his designer, Jérôe Kaplan, chose to set the ballet in the 17th century and to use the Sun King's Versailles as the inspiration for both sets and costumes. It's not a literal interpretation, though, and to remind us all the time that we're looking at a fairytale rather than at real life, the sets are monochrome drawings - not black and white, but rather black and a very light sepia, so that the effect is that the characters in their bright costumes have stepped from the pages of an old book. The costumes have come in for some heavy criticism but for me they have something of the 'feel' of the old Royal Ballet Oliver Messel production - much more so, in fact than the RB's current, supposedly 'after Messel' version. The majority are successful and beautiful - gorgeous, in fact, when it comes to those for the King and Queen and their courtiers - the ladies' dresses, with huge skirts in differently shaded subtle silks, look wonderful and move superbly. (My only complaint there is on behalf of poor Desiré, made to dance in his shirtsleeves at his own wedding - could they really not find him a jacket?) Carabosse's creatures are extremely strangely dressed, in padded trunks, thigh boots, a black ruff and not much else - but then they are very strange characters; the Lilac Fairy (who doesn't dance) has an attractive lilac-and-gold outfit which nicely avoids any suggestion of the mother-of-the-bride look; and though the vision scene's nymphs look anachronistically Victorian in their soft tutus, they are really very pretty. Kaplan's most controversial decision was to put the prologue fairies in classical draperies rather than tutus, and their cavaliers in tunics and breastplates. The men look fine - they're a rather dashing line-up in any case, often including a couple of off-duty Bluebirds or Desirés, and this outfit suits them all. The women's dresses are all the same basic style, each with a slight variation - one has just one sleeve, another leaves one shoulder bare - and they are, again, made from beautifully shaded and soft fabric. But Petipa made these variations for dancers in short skirts and there's no doubt that these do to some extent hide the line of the legs. How much that matter? They were certainly something of a shock at first sight, changing the tone a little and making me look at arms more than footwork, but I actually came to like them in the end. And they are certainly flattering.

I saw the last five performances of the run, in very quick succession (47 hours, start to finish), and as every role was at least double cast I'd guess I saw everyone in the company who's present and fit for duty - some of them a dozen times over. Caroline Cavallo, the most experienced Aurora, had given her farewell performance a few days earlier, but that still left four different leading couples, most of them new to their roles this season. There's unfortunately no way of disguising that without Cavallo and Gudrun Bojesen - injured just before the first night - the company couldn't show an Aurora capable of dancing the role at ballerina level. Amy Watson - the only female principal still available - looked unfocused and didn't transmit any sense of engagement or drive; Jodie Thomas managed a fine Rose Adagio but neither she nor J'aime Crandall has the style for such a classical role, especially in the upper body. (Respect to Crandall, though, for presumably having learnt the role at very short notice to replace Bojesen). The last of the four, Kizzy Matiakis, showed much the clearest sense of what she should be aiming at, and after a rough start in the terrifying balances of Act 1 she gave a clearly danced and well-planned performance. But she's cast against type and it showed.

Andrew Bowman first danced the Prince in the company's last production, a decade or more ago, and technically he's well on top of it. He comes over, though, as athletic and amiable rather than romantic and susceptible, and was at his best once he could forget the plot and just dance. Gregory Dean's interpretation was fine but generic rather than personal; Alban Lendorf is probably the best fit in the production as it is set, whilst Thomas Lund is the only one who currently has the experience and the imagination to take the role beyond what he's been taught and create a unique and real character.


Alban Lendorf as Prince Desire in Christopher Wheeldon's The Sleeping Beauty
© Henrik Stenberg
Click image for larger version, or one that fills the browser window

Lendorf shone again as the Bluebird, equalled by Tim Matiakis whose dancing isn't quite so spectacular but who makes up for it by the intelligence of his acting. (And he also looked much the best of all of them in the rather weird costume.) Alexandra lo Sardo did most of the Florines - I thought her a little too forceful and staccato, but as the others who danced the role were if anything more so, I guess it's the way they were taught to do it. The best thing about the Act III pas de quatre was that its first solo gave Diana Cuni the opportunity to dazzle with her speed and attack, and later in that act I liked both Cedric Lambrette and Alexander Stæer as Puss-in-Boots.

A whole shoal of fairies alternated in the Prologue variations: lo Sardo and Lena-Maria Gruber stood out for their stylishness, Hilary Guswiler for her danciness, and Shelby Elsbree for the sheer vitality of her Song Bird. Alba Nadal seemed to be everywhere - I think every company has someone in the corps de ballet who constantly catches the eye by the way she lives every role, and in the RDB at present it's Nadal. I didn't know whether to be glad or sad to see Mads Blangstrup and Kristoffer Sakurai amongst the Princes in the rose Adagio - glad to see them on stage at all, sad that neither of them is yet fit enough to be dancing bigger roles.

It's taken for granted, watching this company, that the mime roles will be seriously and well done. Erling Eliason's King rivalled memories of the Kirov's great exponent; Mette Bøtcher and Lis Jeppesen smiled benignly as the Lilac Fairy; and Sorella Englund stole every scene in which her Carabosse appeared - her wicked glee was expected, but the pathos of her eventual collapse into a sad old lady was a touching surprise. And Eva Kloborg and Maria Bernholdt were fun as well, at other performances.


Sorella Englund as Carabosse (with Alban Lendorf and Mette Bodtcher in the larger version) in Christopher Wheeldon's The Sleeping Beauty
© Henrik Stenberg
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A final word for Graham Bond, in charge of both the Royal Theatre's own orchestra and, for the last two shows, the Sjællands Symfoniorkester, and drawing all the drama Wheeldon needed from Tchaikowsky's great score.

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