★★★★☆ A magical take on the well-worn classic, while respecting tradition.

Lyric Theatre, QPAC
October 24, 2015

The crown jewel in its season of fairytale ballets, Queensland Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty presents a magical take on the well-worn classic, while respecting tradition.

The story of the beautiful princess who sleeps for a hundred years, only able to be woken by true love’s kiss, is one that many have grown up with. Princess Aurora pricks her finger on a rose at her 16th birthday, and the entire kingdom falls into a magical slumber. The spell is lifted a century later by the brave Prince Désiré, who defeats the wicked fairy Carabosse and kisses the sleeping Aurora to break the spell. The Sleeping Beauty is one of the most beloved classical ballets, first performed by the Imperial Theatres in St. Petersburg in 1890.

Choreographer Greg Horsman’s connection to the ballet began at the age of twelve, when he watched Rudolf Nureyev himself dance the role of the Prince in London. Dancing in four different versions of the ballet in his own career, Horsman always felt that classical repertoire was his forte. “It is handed down to all of us through generations – the steps, the choreography the way that it is taught to us—and I feel that shouldn’t be lost for a ballet like The Sleeping Beauty,” he said of his choreographic choices, adding that his goal for the production was to “take it right back to a fairy tale, and magic.”

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Horsman says that he began speaking with set and costume designer Gary Harris about staging The Sleeping Beauty three years ago, when they were working together at the Royal New Zealand Ballet, and that it “grew from a few bits of paper in a model box.” The palace ballroom sets were lavish and dancers weaved in and out of physical tree trunks, rather than painted backdrops. Moveable castle segments made scene changes smooth and easy within each act. Lighting by Jon Buswell added to the set design to create the eerie forest that grows over the sleeping kingdom and the dramatic fight scene between the Prince and the transformed Carabosse, which finished too soon for the audience’s liking.

Tchaikovsky’s score was performed brilliantly by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. QSO was conducted by Nigel Gaynor, Queensland Ballet’s Music Director and Principal Conductor for the 2016 season.

For select performances, the lead roles of Princess Aurora and Prince Désiré are danced by international ballet stars Alina Cojocaru (English National Ballet), Chi Cao (Birmingham Royal Ballet) and Victor Estevez (Ballet Nacional de Cuba). I was fortunate to attend a performance where Alina danced the role of Aurora, and Chi Cao danced as the Prince. It was truly a privilege to watch these artists at work.

Chi Cao has trained worldwide as a dancer and excels at classical repertory, performing in The Sleeping Beauty many times in the past fifteen years. In 2008, he took a leave of absence from the company to star in the film Mao’s Last Dancer as Queensland Ballet’s own Artistic Director Li Cunxin, and was nominated for Best Actor at the Australian Inside Film Awards. Li helped to coach the film’s ballet sequences, and has been trying to organise to host Chi at Queensland Ballet since he was appointed.

Alina Cojocaru’s resume is equally impressive – considered one the world’s best ballerinas today, the Romanian-born ballerina performs as a guest artist with companies worldwide. She perfectly captured the playful spirit of sixteen-year-old Aurora while displaying incredible strength, control and balance. Her penchés were particularly breathtaking, and every movement was sharp and neat.

While both international guests gave excellent performances throughout, the wedding pas de deux was when they really shone. A highlight was the trifecta of perfect fish dives on the diagonal, and both dancers gave technically perfect performances by themselves; Chi’s incredible elevation and flawless quadruple pirouettes, and Alina’s gorgeous extensions, strength and control, especially in her countless chaines and bourrées.

Alongside these stars, the Queensland Ballet dancers impressively held their own. Most notably, Shane Wuerthner and Emilio Pavan danced as the Prince’s friends in Act 2 and kept pace with Chi – Wuerthner has lovely suspension in his jumps, and Pavan’s strength is in his pirouettes. Their duo at the wedding was slightly out of time, with Pavan syncopating his movements and Wuerthner dancing on the beat.

Principal Clare Morehen was dynamic as the wicked fairy Carabosse, turning the villain into an audience favourite. It was interesting to see Morehen’s “dark side” – she had wonderful energy and stage presence, and her dancing is always a pleasure to watch. Her minions (Jack Lister, Vito Bernasconi, Nathan Brook and D’Arcy Brazier) played excellent character roles.

Other notable character roles were Rian Thompson—always a great character—as the King and retired Queensland Ballet dancer Zenia Tatcheva as the Queen. The four young dancers who played Aurora’s future suitors in the christening scene (Edward Cooper, Nicholas Milne, Jack Jones and Matthew Maxwell) did an admirable job. Guest artist Paul Boyd set the audience giggling with his physical comedy as the King’s cat manservant Catalabutte. Sophie Zoricic danced as his romantic interest, the Queen’s assistant Lady Florine, and both were impressively expressive wearing a mask and fake paws. The Bluebird pas de deux is a personal favourite of mine, and it was beautifully danced by Laura Hidalgo and Camilo Ramos.

The five fairies, half-sisters to the Queen, are a vital component of The Sleeping Beauty ballet. The brief solos that each fairy performed at Aurora’s christening were technically demanding and mostly performed with precise, clean movements. The synchronicity of the fairies and their cavaliers in Act 1 was not quite spot on, but much improved in Act 2. Lina Kim is always technically and expressively lovely, and appropriately danced as Grace, the orange fairy. Eleanor Freeman’s movements were sharp and neat as Wit, the green fairy, and Katherine Rooke performed well as Beauty, the blue fairy, although some of her movements were a bit unsteady and she seemed to fall behind the music briefly in the fast-paced solo.

Teri Crilly danced beautifully as Song, the yellow fairy, and continues to go from strength to strength since her promotion to Junior Soloist earlier in the year, improving noticeably with every Queensland Ballet production. As Song, she was expressive and emotive while still performing all her steps cleanly and with lovely technique. Certainly a ballerina to watch.

The lead fairy – Wisdom, the lilac fairy whose gift saves Aurora from death – was danced by Lisa Edwards. Seemingly unsteady on her feet, her performance at the christening was a shaky start. Her technique improved in Act 2 but her pirouettes continued to appear wobbly.

The company performed well overall, although there was a major lift fumble toward the end of Act 1 – however, both dancers recovered quickly and professionally. The dance of the forest nymphs was the most synchronised performance by the corps this year so far, and was lovely to watch.

Queensland Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty is an intricate puzzle of clever characters, beautiful ballet, drama and suspense. All ages will enjoy this rendition of a favourite fairy tale.

The Queensland Ballet will be performing The Sleeping Beauty at QPAC, Brisbane from October 23-31

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