The reawakening of the Linbury Theatre in 2019 has presented the Royal Opera House with the novel idea of running brief seasons of shows linked to the productions on the main stage. So, while The Sleeping Beauty is showing upstairs in the main house, a modern reinterpretation in a much-distilled essence of that fairy tale has enjoyed a brief run in the Linbury courtesy of Le Ballet de l’Opéra national du Rhin, one of France’s nineteen National Choreographic Centres, covering the Alsace Region.

<i>Les Beaux dormants</i> © Nis & For
Les Beaux dormants
© Nis & For

It is a curious thing: curiouser even than that cast of Red Riding Hood, Bluebird, Blackbeard and Puss in Boots, which provides the entertainment for Aurora’s nuptials in the full-length classical ballet. Hélène Blackburn’s work was originally made for children (in 2017) and has been updated by the choreographer to suit an audience of all ages. Aspects of the classical ballet have been dissected and rearranged with recognisable elements of Tchaikovsky’s score – set within a new and rearranged composition by Martin Tetreault – appearing in an unfamiliar pick ‘n mix order; the waltz providing an oft-repeated Leitmotif.

The deconstructed feel of the work is exacerbated by dancers changing and warming up during the performance in the darkened outer reaches of the stage, which was often distracting from the action in the centre. The simple and imaginative set – also designed by Blackburn – consists of seven three-sided columns, which are initially lined up to form a grey wall across the middle of the stage, before being rotated and moved by the performers to create openings as doorways for a multitude of repeated comings and goings; perhaps suggestive of Palace cliques and intrigues with every character (royals and fairies) wearing a suit. The suits are eventually discarded and the panels are reassembled to become – for example – a painted forest.

The work is simultaneously baffling and absorbing, a danced puzzle in a maze of ideas that may have fleeting or overt references to the original story, or none at all (or at least none that are immediately apparent). It is introduced by film of infants speaking in French, with English subtitles, describing their impressions of a fairy tale, focusing on the prince, the princess and a castle. The editing cuts faster and faster between the children until it becomes a scattergun of single words. It is a neat introduction to the frantic speed of the performance that is to follow.

<i>Les Beaux dormants</i> © Nis & For
Les Beaux dormants
© Nis & For

Blackburn’s choreography is intense and the unrelenting momentum of the dancers’ performance is striking. The fast-paced athleticism put me in mind of the Quebec-based company La La La Human Steps (now sadly defunct), which is not surprising since Blackburn and her company, Cas Public, are also firmly rooted in the dance culture of Quebec. The theme of acceleration is prevalent throughout the work, which condenses the concept of The Sleeping Beauty into fifty minutes’ of performance. Narrator Thomas Hinterberger says very little but encapsulates the story in a mime that is flawlessly repeated at fast-forward speed.

It is initially difficult to identify Aurore (Céline Nunigé) and the Prince (Alain Trividic) from amongst the twelve dancers until the pared-down awakening scene (she lays on a white bench while he kisses her hand) followed by their neoclassical duet to the beautiful music of the grand pas, although their dance is still shadowed by others. Nunigé is outstanding in her fast supported balances and pirouettes, turning one way and then immediately back in the opposite direction. Carabosse (Valentin Thuet) is more obvious with a predilection for high-heeled shoes; and wearing only one stiletto gave the suggestion of the evil fairy’s limp. But such small clues aside, the associations between this work and The Sleeping Beauty are generally opaque with little to identify the meaning either in the performance or the programme.

**111