Artistic Director David McAllister’s production of The Sleeping Beauty opened like a gilded jewellery box sparkling with the beauty of a Peter Carl Fabergé treasure. With fine art I usually subscribe to the old adage “less is more”. Perhaps on Friday night it was the inner child in me screaming with delight “more is more!” I cannot sing enough praise for this glorious production.
The ballet holds a very important niche in the company’s repertoire as homage to the Tchaikovsky/Petipa 19th century partnership that marks the cornerstone of the Romantic Ballet Era. It can be argued a lavish ballet like The Sleeping Beauty (1890, St. Petersburg) is choreographically dated, overly indulgent and expensive. Perhaps it does not speak to younger generations looking for more sleek aesthetic and relatable themes. Many men are uncomfortable watching male dancers perform in white tights; similarly many modern women are put off by stories of princesses being saved by a gallant prince. And although storybook ballets tend to draw a more mature audience it should be noted that these ballets also appeal to young children and are an important gateway to the world of performing arts.
McAllister’s production transcends traditional biases toward classical ballet with its visual artistry and Tchaikovsky’s operatic score. The sheer gorgeousness of the production is breathtaking for both novice and veteran audience members. Centre stage is Gabriela Tylesova, costume and set designer. Her impressive resume and astounding contributions to the production are a rare gift. From the moment the audience enters the theatre we are presented with a downstage scrim reminiscent of a hand drawn brooch from the Baroque style. As the curtain opens the audience is invited to devour a visual feast that increases in decadence with each passing of the ballet’s three acts. The final act alone is worth viewing for its gilded Sun King themed set and costumes inspiring glimpses of Versailles. Complementing Ms. Tylesova’s work in the best way possible is Jon Buswell’s lighting design. When a scene is emblazoned with bejeweled colors, Buswell brings out the darker tones and conversely brings out rays of sunshine in the darker scenes.
The Australian Ballet dancers execute the timeless choreography with bravado, nuance, and joy. It appears that they truly enjoy dancing their roles and that love is projected boldly from the stage. Principal Artist Ako Kondo dances the demanding role of Princess Aurora. Her entrance is effervescent with a warmth and sincerity that immediately embraces the audience. The famous Rose Adage is her first hurdle in the ballet and is historically the most challenging for all ballerinas dancing Princess Aurora. What Ako lacked in confident balances she more than made up for in charm and musicality. She is incredibly likeable and found more freedom and precision in her following solo. Her arms float through rarified air with such poise that it is easy to imagine the fairies’ gifts have been bestowed on her: Joy, Grace, Generosity, Musicality and Temperament; she embodies them all.
Principal Artist Chengwu Guo dances Prince Desiré flawlessly, easily the most virtuoso male dancer I have seen on the AB stage. His role is small compared to Kondo’s and he does not show his prowess until Act III. Dancing the “adage” of the Grand Pas de Deux he is a classic male partner, there for his ballerina in every way matching all of her exquisite lines. He exudes confidence and groundedness. Following the duet he reenters for a truly magnificent solo composed of exciting jumps (elancé) and multiple pirouettes ending with extraordinary control and ease. In the coda with her beloved Prince Ms. Kondo nails her final balance eliciting much excitement and applause from the audience. The two dancers are artists sharing their talents with utmost care and sincerity. The Sleeping Beauty does not demand emotional depth like Romeo and Juliet or Swan Lake, but it does present the conundrum of presenting virtuoso steps without showing off or feeling like a 3-ring circus. The set and costumes do their job of shining without inhibiting the movement while the dancers successfully preserve the more subtle aspects of the ballet’s artistry.
Other standout performances include a joyous Act I waltz performed by the Corps de Ballet with magical garlands and intricate designs. Carabosse, danced by guest artist Lynette Wills, with her five rats, adds contrast to the production’s floral brightness especially when partnered with the fairies. Dimity Azoury danced with the sparkle of a sunburst as The Fairy of Joy, and Brett Chynoweth’s outstanding Bluebird respectively gave new meaning to the term “twinkle toes”. Both joined an accomplished cast of soloists adding to the ballet’s excellent dancing.
Historically the Australian Ballet has had a new production of The Sleeping Beauty approximately every decade. Hopefully McAllister will keep his production around longer. It is worth every hand-sewn sequin and all the fallen glitter!
____________________________________________________________________PPerformances of The Sleeping Beauty run 18 June through 27 June at the Performing Arts Centre.
The Australian Ballet also has an edited version Once Upon a Time: The Sleeping Beauty suitable for ages 4 and up. This child-friendly version is fully staged and performed live by Orchestra Victoria on Tuesday 27 June 12:30-1:30.