The Sleeping Beauty has all the requisite elements of a classic fairy tale. A princess, a king, a queen, suitors to the princess, good fairy, bad fairy, magic, a prince who wakes the princess up with a kiss! And in the ballet, a hand-full of characters from other fairy tales come to celebrate the wedding of the said prince and princess.
Despite all the right elements, it never really became my favourite ballet. However, in recent years I started to realise that this was probably because there have been surprisingly few performances of The Sleeping Beauty I truly enjoyed. There were, of course, a few really wonderful productions. I grew up watching the video of an amazing production by the Kirov Ballet (today’s Mariinsky Ballet) with Irina Kolpakova, Sergey Berezhnoi and Lubov Kunakova. I saw a video of Margot Fonteyn as Princess Aurora and I was also fortunate to get the chance to see the great Ludmila Semenyaka in The Sleeping Beauty on stage. In comparison to those, most productions I saw since seemed dull and colourless.
For a long time I thought it was because I had got somewhat bored of the ballet having watched it countless times on our old fashioned laser discs. But more recently I started to notice that it was due to the fact that the so well-known and loved music of the Sleeping Beauty is deceptively difficult to dance to. The third act grand pas de deux of Aurora and Prince Desire particularly so. It is not “difficult” as such in terms of time signature or change in tempo, buy there is a very clear rhythm depicted under the fluid beautiful melodies. The difficulty for the dancers is that they need to embody both rhythm and melody in order to look at ease and brilliant at the same time.
Bolshoi Ballet’s live transmission of this ballet to cinemas around the world was a very pleasant surprise. Olga Smirnova and Semyon Chudin both have a brilliant musicality that makes them look as though they are creating music by their own bodies. Their technique is flawless but neither show off in any vulgar way. Smirnova was an innocent and shy Aurora who was excited at her party, a translucent and dreamy vision, and a radiant and happy bride. Chudin was noble and yet determined to save the beautiful vision he saw, and a very secure partner who in turn knows how to make his partner look at her most beautiful.
Yulia Stepanova did not really live up to expectations. She did not manage to portray the essence of the graceful yet regal Lilac Fairy. Alexei Loparevich’s Carabosse was also disappointing. He seemed a little like a comic dame. It was a complete contrast too the former Kirov (today’s Mariinsky) Ballet dancer, Vladimir Lopukhov, whose Carabosse was portrayed as a bitter old woman who had nothing left but her magical power.
Artemy Belyakov, who danced the roles of Bluebird and one of the suitors, had caught my eye a while back. He rapidly became one of my favourite Bolshoi dancers, especially after I saw his Evil Genius in Yuri Grigorovich’s Swan Lake when Bolshoi Ballet was performing in London last Summer. He was given this big role within three years of graduating from the Bolshoi Ballet School (Ilya Kuznetsov’s class) and is proving to be a well rounded dancer with a true panache. With his strong and high jumps that make him look as though he is hanging in the air for a moment every time he leaves the floor, his steady pirouettes and sense of control that makes things look so effortless, I dare say he is on his way up to the rank of a principal dancer.
Yuri Grigorovich first staged this current version in 2011. He has cut a fair bit of the music to make the ballet – that usually has three acts and a prologue – into a two-act ballet. Although it is noticeable that some of the music has been shortened or omitted, the cuts do not seem to affect the flow of the story and certainly keep the audience’s fidgeting to a minimum. To my delight, he kept the Prince’s entrance solo which the legendary former Bolshoi star Vladimir Vasiliev danced at Asaf Messerer’s 80th birthday tribute in 1982. It makes the character of the prince a lot more solid and vivid.
All in all, Smirnova, Chudin and Belyakov restored my love for fairy tales, and made me fall in love with the Sleeping Beauty all over again.