My First Ballet: Sleeping Beauty

English National Ballet
Peacock Theatre

Dancers of English National Ballet School Credit: ASH

Following their national tour, which began in March 2016, English National Ballet returns to London to present My First Ballet: Sleeping Beauty. Choreographed by Associate Artist George Williamson, this production is part of English National Ballet’s My First collection, an assortment of specially adapted ballets suitable for young children aged three upwards.

A multi-lingual audience full of families with young children chatter away; the pre-recorded music begins and the Narrator, played by actress Saskia Portway, appears on stage. At first, the narration seems bold and distant from the dancing, but, as the story unfolds, the words blend into the performance and help guide the young audience to follow the classic fairy-tale, much akin to Balletomane’s Library Series.

One impressive feature of the narration and indeed the production itself is the emphasis on classical ballet mime, a recurrent feature throughout. As the Lilac Fairy (Arianna Marchiori) sweeps her arms towards her inclined head to gesture that Aurora will fall asleep for 100 years, the Narrator (Saskia Portway) mimics her movement exactly, including the correct use of épaulement, but adds spoken word in doing so.

In recent livestreams, commentators have been heard to talk over the dancing, but not in this production—the narration respects the musical cues and does not interrupt the choreographic flow, giving much credit to this ballet’s heritage.

Using some of Petipa’s original choreography, especially in the solo variations, Katya Bourvis exhibits delicacy and lyricism with a Cecchetti-like port de bras as the Woodland Glade Fairy. However, with a small cast, group variations including act one’s Garland Dance are reinvented.

Williamson’s creation of this waltz is too busy for the performance space, with dancers having to fit in many steps, turns and lifts, becoming less together in doing so. Fewer complicated steps and better use of the stage may remedy this and allow the dancers to embrace Tchaikovsky’s score.

Aurora, danced by Daniela Norman, is partnered by Giorgio Garrett, who displays fine classical technique and effective characterisation as the Prince. Norman tackles the complex Rose Adagio well, her pas de deux work has more energy than her solo chaînés and jetés en manège, which at times feel laboured.

Arianna Marchiori makes an elegant and expressive Lilac Fairy; her arabesque allongée line is sublime. Suitably-cast Letizia Cirri’s Finger Fairy and Princess Florine are full of stage presence and attack and she is later joined by Jesse Milligan who performs a powerful Bluebird solo. In act two, appearing from behind moving-hedges, The White Cat (Emma Price) and Puss-in-Boots (Philip Tunstall) deliver an enjoyable pas de caractère.

The dissection of Tchaikovsky’s pre-recorded score for this shortened-version is most noticeable in the Rose Adagio arrangement, where the end of one phrase is snipped and joined onto another on more than one occasion, at times uneasy on the ears of music lovers in the audience.

However, with the full-length ballet usually lasting three hours, this relaxed ninety-minute performance with one twenty-minute interval is not only suitable for young children, but enjoyable for adult newcomers too. With the audience engaged and in near-silence throughout, George Williamson’s direction is a success.

Reviewer: Naomi Cockshutt

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