The Sleeping Beauty, Queensland Ballet

QPAC, Brisbane, June 4.

When Queensland Ballet performed The Sleeping Beauty in 2015, artistic director Li Cunxin cast international superstar Alina Cojocaru as first-night Aurora. She was wonderful of course but it was a sign Li was still in development mode at the company he took over in 2013.

A glance at the 2015 program reveals that tucked away in the corps –  QB calls that cohort Company Artists – was Neneka Yoshida, who had joined QB the year before. She was promoted to the company’s top rank this year, becoming Li’s first entirely home-grown principal artist, and on the opening night of this revival of Greg Horsman’s The Sleeping Beauty, she made an exquisite debut as Aurora.

Even if international artists were able to get into Australia at the moment, the point is they are now not needed to bring lustre to opening night. QB is in sparkling form.

Horsman’s version stays close to the standard text of Marius Petipa’s 1888 ballet where it really matters but there’s a lot that’s original. Because it was made for the medium-sized Royal New Zealand Ballet, in 2011, Horsman dialled down this grandest of grand ballets, pulling back the number of characters and foregrounding storytelling – fairy storytelling – and humour rather than pomp and ceremony. Some too-clunky set moving aside, Gary Harris’s medieval-inspired designs work a treat in this context.

Characters are woven tightly into the action to pleasing effect. As the curtain rises we see that the King’s major domo Catalabutte is, in fact, a cat and so is his wife, Lady Florine (the excellent Rian Thompson and Sophie Zoricic in the first cast). Naturally they dance the variation for pusses in Act III, placed here just after the Blue Birds pas de deux. Catalabutte shows a great deal of interest in the birds, needless to say, to the delight of the audience.

There are four fairies, not five, who bestow their gifts on the infant Aurora in the Prologue (the “finger” variation is omitted). This reduction gives Horsman the opportunity to insert Carabosse into sections of the fairies’ dances and thus establish her as one of the gals, albeit one whose glamour, sophistication and temperament mark her as someone who would never belong to the same social group as these sweet young things in pastels. (Carabosse’s tutu is of similar design to the others but in dramatic black.) 

There is clever use of the good fairies when they turn up later as Aurora’s girlfriends at the Act I party thrown to introduce the princess to prospective bridegrooms. In Act III they dance to some of the music written for the Jewel fairies and so on. It’s a neat strategy, well executed. And what fun to see four princely little boys hauled along to Aurora’s christening in the Prologue and to realise they are already ear-marked as marriage prospects for her. 

Yoshida’s Aurora fitted in beautifully with this emphasis on domestic scale. Her acting is natural and subtle, she has the bloom of youth and the quiet glow of an intelligent, inquiring girl on the cusp of life’s discoveries. Yoshida was feather-light and poised at even the most treacherous moments and her sweet rapport with Victor Estévez’s deeply felt Prince Désiré was a thing of beauty. Estévez, by the way, was a guest artist from National Ballet of Cuba in 2015 and not long after joined QB. There were a few less-than-neat landings from Estévez but he danced nobly and partnered Yoshida impeccably in their charming wedding pas de deux.

Lucy Green and Kohei Iwamoto were the fleet Blue Birds on opening night and Georgia Swan the vengeful Carabosse who rather over-reacts to being excluded from Aurora’s christening. She even indulges in a spot of baby-tossing. Very funny indeed. Yanela Piñera was the bountiful Lilac Fairy who makes everything right.

The first-cast fairies – Serena Green, Laura Toser, Mia Heathcote and Chiara Gonzalez – were first rate and included in their number two more Auroras to be seen during the season, Heathcote and Gonzalez (Lucy Green is another).

All were splendidly supported at the first performance by conductor Nigel Gaynor in charge of Queensland Symphony Orchestra and the important solos for violin, piccolo, flute and cello were gorgeously played. Tchaikovsky’s score isn’t heard in full of course – it would be a very long night in the theatre if so – but nevertheless gems are missing and missed. Of particular note is the fact there are only a few bars of Tchaikovsky’s “blaze of imperial grandeur” that would usually end this ballet (the description is David Nice’s in his notes for the complete Sleeping Beauty recorded by Bergan Philharmonic Orchestra and Neem Järvi). At QB we get more of the Lilac Fairy’s theme to draw things to a close. Again the emphasis is on intimacy and goodness rather than the power and authority of the court and its king but the lack of this ending reminds one there is more to The Sleeping Beauty than offered here.

The production is such a smartly thought-out response to a Beauty for relatively small forces that it’s perhaps a little churlish to point out that QB is a significantly bigger company than it was in 2015. Still, there’s no escaping the fact. Back then there were nearly 40 dancers to call on; now there are nearly 60. Six years ago there were only three ranks (plus eight Young Artists). Today QB has five ranks, augmented by 12 Young Artists.

Tchaikovsky’s score is one of ballet’s finest jewels and for all the virtues of Horsman’s Beauty, and they are many, the score is not fully realised. With the company’s increased size and stature come increased expectations. Next time?

Images from top to bottom: Neneka Yoshida; Laura Toser, Mia Heathcote, Georgia Swan, Serena Green and Chiara Gonzalez; Victor Estévez; Lucy Green and Kohei Iwamoto. Photos by David Kelly.

The Sleeping Beauty ends June 19.

A version of this review first appeared in The Australian on June 7.

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