The Sleeping Beauty review (Perth)

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Australian Ballet artistic director David McAllister promised that his 2015 season would be all about beauty. Well, his lavish world premiere production of The Sleeping Beauty, the season centrepiece, certainly makes you wonder. With Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson in the lead roles, this is the company’s fourth new production of Marius Petipa’s famous ballet — and surely its most ostentatious.
This is The Sleeping Beauty as a rococo fantasia. It’s big, bright and brash, transporting us to a fairy-tale palace of absurd prodigality. And the opening night audience overwhelmingly approved.
First performed as a ballet in 1890, the story of Charles Perrault’s feted princess is simple enough to tell: she is cursed, she sleeps, and then she is revived by the kiss of a prince who truly loves her. In this production, folkloric romance is merged with a frou-frou vision of the frivolity and showiness of the late 17th-century French court.
And there is also showiness in McAllister’s revival of Petipa’s choreography. There is nothing slumberous, sluggish, somnolent or snoozy about his Beauty: everything is athletic and energetic, full of clear rhythms and bold, even lines.
But the sets and costumes are a different kind of pomp — or at least they imply a different idea of beauty. Gabriela
Tylesova, who designed Love Never Dies for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group, has created a world of surreal  indulgence. Her palatial sets, defined by extravagant, asymmetrical curves and twisted ivory columns, are crammed with fancy furnishings and the tinselled stuff of royalty.
The costumes, also by Tylesova, are heavy with gold and brocade. The highly structured court garments of the prologue tend to make the dancers look like country dining chairs sprung to life, albeit with the most shapely legs sprouting beneath the ropes and tassels. The tutus for the fairies who offer gifts to the infant princess have a magical intensity of colour and are studded with plenty of twinkling bits. The evil fairy Carabosse is appropriately witchy in flowing black-on-black, while her rat-faced minions look wonderfully gallant in frills and ruffles.
No doubt it’s all meant to be a bit of a laugh, with beauty hidden beneath lashings of swank. And if you’re not impressed by the vulgarity of the total stage picture, there are plenty of naff details to keep you baffled or amused. Why spend thousands on gorgeous fairy tutus only to hang a pair of vestigial Halloween butterfly wings on them? And I particularly liked the moment when one sly white rat slipped onto the king’s throne while no one was looking. He looked right at home.
But the most satisfying moments are the most intimate, when individual dancers are cut out from the clutter. I remember in the first act, for instance, those moments where everyone and everything seems to melt away except Lana Jones and the solo violin.
These are not the most acrobatic passages, but they have a clarity and composure that is otherwise hard to find beneath all the chintz. And I think also of Kevin Jackson as the melancholy prince, having seen off his hunting buddies in the second act, alone in the forest. Jackson seems sombre, but also somehow radiant, enjoying the opportunity to hold the stage by himself.
Or not quite by himself. The entrance of the Lilac Fairy (Amber Scott) in this scene is brilliantly orchestrated by McAllister, mixing drama, comedy and unfussy graces.

Kevin Jackson and Amber Scott

But the fantastical scenic dream was too much, at least for me. Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo, as Bluebird and Princess Florine in act three, could have stolen my heart. Such effortless power! But where were they dancing? The palace looks like an elephant graveyard drizzled in gold paint and hung with wonky-gaudy glass bead chandeliers. And the gigantic ribcage that hangs above it all is a sort of gilded trap. What was it that Oscar Wilde said about beauty tracing for the eye the moral order of the universe? I fear for what this Beauty says about our values and priorities.
Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo in David McAllister's The Sleeping Beauty. The...
Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo

I know we mean all sorts of things by beauty, and certainly The Sleeping Beauty was enthusiastically received, with a spontaneous standing ovation on opening night. In Melbourne and around the country the season has all but sold out. This goodwill is in itself quite moving. And it’s worth noting that, according to a program note from Sarah Murdoch, deputy chair at the Australian Ballet, over 70% of the production costs came from public donations — with more than 2000 individual donors.
All the same, with what seems like an hysterical fear of reality and a tendency to smother the human body, not to mention the element of love, I worry that this Sleeping Beauty has more than a little of what Robin Boyd famously called the great Australian ugliness.
[box]The Sleeping Beauty is at Perth Crown Theatre from October 7-10, and at the Sydney Opera House from November 27 – December 16. Images by Jeff Busby. This review is from the Melbourne season.[/box]

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