When choreographers want to refresh their belief in the possibilities of classical dance, they return to The Sleeping Beauty. From Frederick Ashton to Alexei Ratmansky, from Kenneth MacMillan to George Balanchine and on to William Forsythe and Christopher Wheeldon, Marius Petipa’s 19th-century masterpiece has been a guide.
It has influenced other things, too. I always wonder how much the horned hat worn by evil fairy Maleficent in Disney’s 1959 cartoon was inspired by Oliver Messel’s designs for Carabosse in the Royal Ballet’s 1946 production, which launched Ninette de Valois’s baby ballet company on its path to world fame.
It’s a version of that production, created by Monica Mason and Christopher Newton, with designs faithfully reproduced, that the Royal Ballet dances today, and a strong whiff of history emanates from the stage. Given that there really is no story to speak of (princess is born, has a birthday party, falls asleep for 100 years, wakes up when kissed by prince and has another party) and precious little subtext, whether you succumb to its magic depends entirely on how much you enjoy seeing today’s dancers grapple with the intricacies of the choreography.
On opening night I happily held both views. The retro nature of the staging bothers me (all those painted backdrops and courtiers in baggy satin britches), but from the moment Thomas Whitehead’s fussy master of ceremonies walked on to the stage and started to roll his eyes as he checked the fairy guest list, I was entranced.
This is part of what the Royal Ballet brings to these traditional ballets: a sense of drama, an etching of character in gesture and attitude. It’s on display, too, when Kristen McNally’s Carabosse sweeps in, eyes flashing, imperious foot stamping. Behind the pantomime villainy there’s just a hint of humanity, a sense that she’s right to feel spurned. Someone has also taken time to help the dancers with the mime. It’s an alien language, yet it is so emphatically performed – particularly by Fumi Kaneko’s radiant Lilac Fairy – that it seems clear.
In general, the company passes the tests the ballet sets. After an uncertain start, all the fairies rose to the occasion, with Sophie Allnatt and Annette Buvoli particularly eye-catching – and the entire cast creating filigree shapes, vistas of arms and legs. In the final act, Calvin Richardson’s elegant Florestan, Joseph Sissens’s musical, high-flying Bluebird and Mica Bradbury’s petulant White Cat shone brightest, but everyone played their part beautifully.
Yet every performance of The Sleeping Beauty – and this production runs off and on with various casts until June – is ultimately judged on its leading couple. Marianela Nuñez serenely finds a way of shaping Aurora’s journey: she is innocently joyful in the famous held poses of the Rose Adagio, poetic and mysterious in the vision scene and triumphant in the glory of the wedding pas de deux.
Vadim Muntagirov matches her secure brilliance every step of the way. He only appears in Act 2, but from that moment on his presence deepens the ballet, whether in the way his head follows Nuñez’s movements when she first appears, or the panache he lends to his partnering. Their dancing is full of truth and a deep understanding of the tradition in which they follow.
The Sleeping Beauty is in rep at the Royal Opera House, London, until 6 June