Often considered the pinnacle of classical ballet, The Sleeping Beauty encompasses so many modes – abstract dance, mime, drama, diversion – that it might be more useful to call it the complete classical ballet. English National Ballet sail confidently through this varied and demanding piece, thanks partly to the sublime leads (Fernanda Oliveira and Dmitri Gruzdyev), partly to the standard of the cast, and partly to the grandeur of the design. Nevertheless, you will doubtless prefer some modes to others.
Much of the piece is less concerned with plot than with establishing a look and a feel: radiant lines, patterns all in place and in proportion. For me, so much sparkling, smiling and unremitting decorum can feel not only stifling but – well, icky. So it is a relief, in the Prologue, when bad-taste Carabosse (André Portásio, looking like Elizabeth I and acting like Cruella de Vil) crashes the christening party, cursing the guests and hitting the fairies. Carabosse, thankfully, is a powerful sight rather than a pretty one.
But act one intimates that beyond prettiness lies another ideal: perfection. In the famous Rose Adagio sequence – danced with supreme control by Oliveira – it is flawlessness that Princess Aurora’s suitors admire. In act two, admiration turns to desire, and the ballet gains emotional colour. The exquisite choreography – all loops and circles – sees the Prince (Gruzdyev), led on by the Lilac Fairy (Sarah McIlroy), endlessly following the fugitive vision of Aurora.
The fairytale characters who appear in act three may seem like cute entertainment – but they also serve to show flawed versions of coupledom. Puss in Boots is flirty with her Cat, Bluebird is flighty with his Princess, Red Riding Hood fighty with her Wolf. They are a foil to the final, supremely classical duet of Aurora and her Prince, in which Oliveira and Gruzdyev are, indeed, practically perfect.