An electrifying Sleeping Beauty

The Meridian Season of The Sleeping Beauty
Royal New Zealand Ballet
Choreographer Greg Horsman, designer Gary Harris
St James Theatre, Wellington
October 28-30 and November 2-5
Then touring to Invercargill, Dunedin, Palmerston North, Napier, Auckland and Rotorua

On the stage of the St James Theatre last Friday night, Stella Abrera, in the guise of Princess Aurora, appeared to inhabit a different world from the dancers around her. This was not just great classical dancer but a sparkling gem of pure movement.

Her dazzling display combined supreme elegance, technical fluidity and emotional richness that was electrifying in its power and urgency.

The Sleeping Beauty ranks among the top half dozen ballets. It has a simple story but it also has social, political and psychological complexity, plus a density that makes it a rich dance work.

The Royal New Zealand Ballet's latest production manages to combine all the elements of the fairy tale, pantomime and the tragic fable along with rivetting theatre.

The work was originally performed before Tsarist Russian court audiences. What they saw on stage for most of the production was their own environment: a hierarchy of positions and roles all acted out within the confines of richly decorated interiors, with courtiers and noble people who knew their rank and position in a fantastically structured society.

For many of them, The Sleeping Beauty was something a cautionary tale about the ever present terror of political and social unrest.

It is the evil Carabosse with her attendants who make manifest this lurking terror, which imprisons the court for a hundred years. It seems remarkably prescient of Petipa (and Tchaikovsky) that 100 years after the first production, Russia would emerge from its period of political and social slumber.

There is also a strong psychological aspect to the work with the interplay between the forces of good and evil jousting for the mind of the young princess.

The ballet is filled with fabulous dance; elegant courtly dances, some almost abstract work by the Carabosse’s attendants, touches of rustic folk dance and ravishing displays of classical ballet.

The minor roles of the four Prince suitors and Prince Désiré’s attendants are solidly danced with Qi Huan as the Russian Prince providing a brilliantly restrained performance.

Stella Abrera shines throughout and even managed the tricky Rose Adagio superbly. That sequence, seemingly invented by a demented choreographer, requires the dancer to balance on point while promenading with her four suitors.

It is as technically challenging as many of the great gymnastic routines and both cast and audience spent a few breath-stopping moments while she completed the movement.

From the second act on, when she dances with her Prince Désiré, her remarkable solo work was replaced with some incisive duos as she danced with Sergio Torrado.

Torrado’s muscular dancing is enthralling and in his first minutes on stage brings an intense feeling of melancholy to his work. His power and tautness conveyed a strong sense of sexuality that is later liberated in his dancing with Abrera.

Their “dream sequence” duo in which they dance barely touching is moving and poignant, the spaces between them pulsing with energy.

Catalabutte (Shannon Dawson) and Lady Florine (Lucy Balfour) in their cat masks add a whimsical humour to the dance, providing a delightful sense of narrative in the final act when everybody shows of their skills.

The five Fairies representing various attributes of the royal Princess; grace wit, beauty wisdom and song all dance with lightness and effervescence, projecting the joy of the child’s birth.

Each takes on the physical attributes that express the qualities they represent. Adriana Harper as the Yellow Fairy, “Song” with hands continually aflutter was particularly effective in using the body to give expression to the notion of a vibrant voice.

The Fairy Cavaliers who accompany them gave brilliant athletic performances representing more physical qualities of the courtly nobility.

The early sequence in which the Fairies bestow their qualities on the child loses some of its impact by the dancers addressing the audience rather than the child. The sense of a connection with the narrative of the story gets lost as we merely watch the dancers rather than engage with them in their task of engaging with the young Princess.

This is made very apparent when Carabosse descends on the party and wrenches the baby from its crib creating a real sense of physical interaction.

Clytie Campbell does an inspired interpretation of the wicked Carabosse with strong dramatic flourishes. Her attendants in their fright masks, however, were more comical than grotesque, looking as though they have wandered in from the set of one of Peter Jackson’s scary movies.

Weta Workshop's fire breathing dragon, which appears in the second act as a transformation of Carabosse, is a brilliant addition to the dance.

The sets provide a magnificent setting for the ballet, with the second act woodland scene and its 19th century towering Romantic landscape as backdrop providing a nice foil to the decorative splendour of the first and last scenes.