The Sleeping Beauty; Rambert Event review – total ballerina focus and stale fruitcake

Royal Opera House; Sadler’s Wells, London
A spectacular Princess Aurora graces a Royal Ballet favourite in dire need of an update, while Merce Cunningham isn’t best served by Rambert’s latest remix

The Royal’s Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty goes down as easy as a violet cream-filled fondant. An unreconstructed, full-corps pageant complete with tiny pageboys in satin knickerbockers, the unironic staging obscures the satire of Tchaikovsky’s intricate score, which is served up with the bullishness of a Technicolor special at the MGM Grand.

There is a notable lack of menace when bad fairy Carabosse curses Princess Aurora at her christening, simply because she wasn’t invited. Carabosse will be familiar to anyone who’s seen The Wizard of Oz or encountered an angry flamenco teacher. With her dusty Halloween dress and secondhand lace headpiece, Carabosse resembles a tipsy cosplay Catherine of Aragon crashing Anne Boleyn’s christening party for Elizabeth I.

The starring role of Princess Aurora will be taken by various dancers this season. I got Yasmine Naghdi and she is spectacular. Prowling and exultant, punchy and athletic, grinning from ear to ear, she exudes physical and emotional strength. She cavorts with a bravura display of skill, stamina and charisma, her majestically controlled high kicks and nonchalant turns reminding me more of a music-hall sailor than a fragile “pwintheth”.

Apart from this main role, the production is underpowered and baggy, in massive need of updating. Any darkness is ignored. A cursed family, a century-long damned sleep, a wake-up call in the form of a sexual assault? Who cares when you have the Lilac Fairy holding a glittery wand resembling a cake decoration. When Princess Aurora finds the cursed spindle, it trails a length of thread like the Tampon of Doom. Her saviour, diffident little Prince Florimund (Matthew Ball), doesn’t have much to do. In his first solo he is lonely and sad, his spiralling turns and dejected, headachey hops going nowhere. Later, he is happy and in love.

Other male dancers splay and display, but really this is a ballet for women and an epic legs workout. That is where Marius Petipa’s choreography really bites and attacks, demanding total ballerina focus for those unsupported holds and turns. Each fairy – and the gorgeously writhing White Cat – gets her own fiendishly precise choreographic personality, which fuses with the score, where trilling solos tease out from the lush bluster.

A scene from The Sleeping Beauty by The Royal Ballet @ Royal Opera House.
Corps strength… The Sleeping Beauty. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

At the interminable final wedding, pairs of guests perform like runners-up on Strictly. Still, it wouldn’t be Christmas without some stale frosted fruitcake. Keep an eye on Yasmine Naghdi and let the rest waft around you like a cheap scented candle.

Rambert Event at Sadler’s Wells is a mixed spritzer of excerpted Merce Cunningham works spanning 35 years, with a backdrop of Gerhard Richter paintings and a live score by Philip Selway, Adem Ilhan and Quinta. It showcases the strong ballet foundations of Cunningham’s genius as well as his international influences, deconstructed through writhing jumps and nervy readjustments.

The score is intrusive and overbearing, neither a complement nor a counter-challenge, and running 10 excerpts together without any change in costume, backdrop or lighting robs the source works of their distinctiveness. This bemuse-bouche does none of its contributors any favours.

Rambert Event at Sadler’s Wells
Rambert Event at Sadler’s Wells. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Star ratings (out of five)
The Sleeping Beauty ★★★
Rambert Event ★★

• The Sleeping Beauty is at the Royal Opera House, London, until 16 January 2020



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