Ballets don’t come much sweeter than “The Sleeping Beauty.” The Petipa classic is a sparkling confection of sequins and tulle, its three acts fizzing with dulcet duets and variations. Kenneth MacMillan’s 1987 version, staged here by English National Ballet, cuts through some of the fluff but is honeyed all the same, with plenty of sugary frolics swirled in. And the cherry on top? A guest turn from former Bolshoi Ballet prima Maria Alexandrova, whose perky expressiveness and top-notch technique impress mightily.
ENB’s production is elaborate without feeling stifling, a fetching parade of fairies and princes and spellbound romances. The palette is lush—creamy sherbets and zazzy jewel tones—while the ornate costuming resists cartoonishness (bar one monarch, who looks suspiciously similar to the Burger King mascot). It’s not easy to keep an audience rapt for three hours, but the company isn’t far off here, even with the show’s overlong coda of fairytale divertissements.
The production front-loads its action in an animated prologue that sets out the central conflict: a vengeful fairy has cast a deadly curse on Princess Aurora, the kingdom’s newest royal, in retaliation for being excluded from the baby’s christening ceremony. It’s here we get our first taste of Stina Quagebeur as the goblin-toting Carabosse, a stylish baddie with a flair for dramatic exits (think Winifred Sanderson meets the Queen of Hearts), as well as Tiffany Hedman’s sparkling, benevolent Lilac Fairy. Amid the excitement are also turns from the other fairy godmothers in the flock, including Senri Kou’s flitting, fleet-footed songbird.
About an hour into the show comes Alexandrova’s much-anticipated entrance as Princess Aurora. Sprightly and brisk, she marries crisp lines and impeccable pointework (finely cultivated during her 20 years at the Bolshoi) with a girlish friskiness that bristles in her eager gait and witty expression. The combo is captivating, particularly in her adagio with a quartet of suitors, and gives the impression of a filly itching to gallop out of the gate.
Alexandrova’s excitability makes a stimulating contrast to Hedman’s dutiful composure—pretty, practised poise, a tad cautious but wonderfully clean. Through upright balances and big, munificent extensions, Hedman asserts her character as an angel of virtue—an image sealed as she delivers Prince Désiré (Isaac Hernández) to Sleeping Beauty’s mossy, overgrown castle, her head graciously bowed.
Where his princess is spirited, Hernández is wistful, bringing a dreamy softness to variations where you might expect a sturdier gallantry. His fluidity and excellent control come to the fore in his ‘vision’ scene, where he imagines meeting Aurora, a springy, joyful duet that sees both performers exult in the joy of pure dance. The pair also dazzle in their Act III grand pas de deux, with its sunny grand allegro and soaring fishdives.
The sizable corps cut a comely figure across the show: sprites prancing en pointe, noblemen dipping them into penchés. They look a little under-rehearsed in earlier phrases, including the fussy Garland Waltz, but tighten up significantly in the second act, particularly the men, who deliver some whip-fast batterie. Come the final scene, the group gamely frames the stage for a procession of cameos from the likes of Puss in Boots and Red Riding Hood. I could take or leave most of these showboating turns, save the towering cabrioles and eye-grabbing tours en l’air from Daniel McCormick’s Bluebird, which I’ll hold fast to, thanks very much. He has a harmonised partner in Rina Kanehara, whose flight of fancy as Princess Florine is airy and enthralling.