A lot has changed since Queensland Ballet last presented The Sleeping Beauty in 2015. Then, it featured three guest artists, including superstar prima ballerina Alina Cojocaru and two princes supplementing its single male principal (there was, however, a promotion at the conclusion of the final performance). One of those guests, Cuban-born Victor Estévez, went on to become a resident Principal in 2016.
Neneka Yoshida and Victor Estévez in The Sleeping Beauty, 2021. Photograph courtesy of Queensland Ballet
Most notably different is the expansion in dancer numbers, youthful lead role debutantes and season performances. The company has grown (including the Jette Parker young artists) by 20 dancers to 59, providing the depth to furnish an additional cast (five in total). Four of the Auroras and Prince Désirés are performing the characters for the first time: Principals Neneka Yoshida – given opening night honours – and Lucy Green, Soloist Mia Heathcote, who has featured in the promotional imagery, and company artist Chiara Gonzalez, alongside Principal Camilo Ramos and Senior Soloists Patricio Revé, Joel Woellner and Kohei Iwamoto. Only Estévez and fellow Principal Yanela Piñera previously performed these roles.
No doubt the ambitious programming of 16 shows at QPAC’s Lyric Theatre was prompted by the premiere season’s success, which was to that date QB’s highest-selling production, bringing more than 16,500 people to its nine performances.
The remount’s postponement from 2020 means it now commemorates the 10th anniversary of Greg Horsman’s adaptation, created for Royal New Zealand Ballet and embraced there with similar audience enthusiasm.
It’s impressive that even without the international star power, and despite the season’s shift from spring to the first chills of winter, Brisbane audiences are again flocking to the classic fairytale. While this extended run hasn’t fully sold-out, demand has extended to the Lyric’s second balcony and sections of the theatre are full at some performances.
At odds in The Sleeping Beauty are the story’s simplicity and the fiendishly difficult technical challenges of Marius Petipa’s famous choreography. Tchaikovsky’s full score is also a musical marathon, so it takes skilled editing to create a streamlined version for a restless modern audience that still ticks the key boxes.
Horsman’s 130-minute retelling, condensing three acts to two, is fresh and crystal-clear. The most immediate observable change presents palace master of ceremonies Calabutte and lady-in-waiting Lady Florine as cats, conflating them with Act III’s Wedding divertissement characters Puss in Boots and the White Cat. This choice seems every bit as legitimate as the random array of guests at the celebrations, and it has the welcome benefit of some winning physical comedy via the pair’s feline antics and instincts – with Rian Thompson and Sophie Zoricic delighting the opening audience.
Designer Gary Harris’s sets and costumes imaginatively convey the tale’s splendour and enchantment, providing another layer of aesthetic enjoyment to the experience. In addition to the cats’ masks, NZ’s Weta Workshop (of The Lord of the Rings fame) realised a magnificent dragon to captivate young and old.
Not only does conductor Nigel Gaynor have Queensland Symphony Orchestra sounding sumptuous, he also supports the dancers in meeting the choreography’s exacting demands.
Done well, The Sleeping Beauty’s steps belie their difficulty; fall short, and there’s nowhere to hide. We saw this undoing in 2015, and replicated in some of the same sections on this opening. The pressure of knowing how exposing the pure classicism can be may also play a part, because there were uncharacteristic missteps across the ranks, from corps members to soloists. Even one of the company’s most reliable artists appeared a little off her game initially. However, as Wisdom, the Lilac Fairy, who counters evil fairy Carabosse’s spell by putting Aurora to sleep for 100 years, principal Yanela Piñera quickly regained her typical composure.
In the context of the ballet as a whole though, there was far more to appreciate for its taut execution and accomplished artistry.
Serena Green, Laura Tosar, Chaira Gonzalez and Mia Heathcote in The Sleeping Beauty, 2021. Photograph courtesy of Queensland Ballet
The Blue, Green, Orange and Yellow fairies (Serena Green, Laura Tosar, Heathcote and Chiara Gonzalez) were gorgeous visions, impressing in unison and individually – they worked seamlessly together and also executed their idiosyncratic Act I solos (Beauty, Wit, Grace, and Song, respectively) with aplomb.
The Wedding act’s Bluebird pas de deux is one of the ballet’s most iconic pieces. Principal Lucy Green and Senior Soloist partner Kohei Iwamoto originated it in this production’s 2011 premiere. Green shone as a perfect Bluebird – light, sharp and elegant – and while Iwamoto’s elevation and beats were strong, he lacked Green’s length of line and appearance of effortless grace.
Bringing the counterpoint of darkness and drama, Carabosse is a character role artists can sink their teeth into, which soloist Georgia Swan did wholeheartedly.
At the end of the day, what matters most though, is the eponymous character and her prince. Not only was Yoshida dancing Aurora for the first time, she was given the responsibility of doing so on opening night in her first full-length ballet since rising to the top rank.
Portraying the princess at her 16th birthday party, she was animated, expressive and poised. Yes, I have seen arabesque balances held longer in the Rose Adagio, and more nuanced characterisations, but these will come as she relaxes into the role; in the last six months her artistry has grown in leaps and bounds.
The second act’s virtuosic showpieces really saw Yoshida in her sweet spot. She dazzled, and Estévez as her Prince Désiré rose to meet her bravura with soaring leaps and commanding turns, before the pair nailed the thrilling sequence of rapid-fire fish dives. He is on a similar journey to become more outwardly expressive, and they are forming a trusting partnership that is bringing out the best in each other.
Queensland Ballet performs The Sleeping Beauty at Lyric Theatre, QPAC until 19 June