25 Feb 2024

Birmingham Royal Ballet - Sleeping Beauty

Bruce Marriott in Birmingham for what turned out to be a slice of classical perfection…

Yu Kurihara and Lachlan Monaghan in The Sleeping Beauty. © Tristram Kenton.Yu Kurihara and Lachlan Monaghan in The Sleeping Beauty. © Tristram Kenton.

Birmingham Royal Ballet
The Sleeping Beauty
24 February 2024, matinee
Birmingham Hippodrome

Birmingham Royal Ballet, in common with nearly all ballet companies, is looking for new and distinctive work - witness its Black Sabbath — The Ballet hit of last year. But ballet can’t easily shake off its past and a totally stuffed Birmingham Hippodrome rammed home the attraction of traditional work, as their now 40-year-old production of Sleeping Beauty delivered its magic and wowed us all.

Peter Wright’s telling of Beauty gets so much right - the simple plot isn’t layered with 21st century psychological updates, the designs and costumes (Philip Prowse) look a million dollars (and would probably cost twice that if you were starting from scratch again) and the 19th century choreography sparkles and tests the company. This is ballet as most think it should be and the Birmingham dancers and team don’t disappoint, as waves of steps, ballet tricks’ and regal spectacle keep us happily engaged for much of its nearly 3 hour duration. Everything about Beauty is BIG.

Sarah Crompton, in reviewing the Royal Ballet’s version, neatly gutted one view of what Beauty is about Princess is born, has a birthday party, falls asleep for 100 years, wakes up when kissed by prince and has another party.” But more substantively, it’s also a story of good triumphing over evil as the good (Lilac) fairy does battle with an evil fairy (Carabosse) and wins - huzzah! And that the two fairies are walking rather than full-on dancing roles, makes the drama more believable and rather human in a way. In fact, for all its royal and ancient roots, the production feels driven by real characters, doing their best, rather than hollow caricatures. The whole company acts their socks off.

The only part of the telling I could do without is the traditional hunting party scene in act 2, which doesn’t really add much spectacle and the blindfolded bumbling of a royal lackey seems tedious. But other than that, this is a fine watch and, I have to say, rather more enjoyable than the somewhat stiffer Royal Ballet version.

Princess Aurora is probably the hardest technical challenge any ballerina will face and Yu Kurihara, the rapidly rising First Soloist, delivered in spades. What impresses most is her speed and ability to turn on a sixpence and then stop dead to show the final pose - it’s a very special gift she has. It will come, as will promotion to Principal, but just now the dramatic side of the character is not so artful. But her young age and sense of wonder at dancing such a role comes across and fits the coming-of-age story well. Kurihara couldn’t wish for a better Prince: Lachlan Monaghan is brimming with technical and dramatic ability, and we all feel in safe hands, as must she. The company pulls together well, but special mentions for Yaoqian Shang (Fairy of Beauty) for her wonderful musicality, ditto for the Pas de quatre dancers, Sofia Liñares, Rachele Pizzillo, Enrique Bejarano Vidal and Shuailun Wu. And I have to mention Daria Stanciulescu’s vain and glamorously spiteful Carabosse and Rory Mackay’s beautifully-rendered Master of Ceremonies (Catalabutte), a masterclass in bringing a role to vivid life, and not just when under the spotlight.

Like the company, I lust to see lots of new work, but the best of the classics, staged and danced with conviction as here, still pack a hell of a ballet punch and long may we have the privilege to see it.