At the opening night of Kenneth MacMillan’s production of The Sleeping Beauty in London, all eyes were on English National Ballet’s new artistic director, up on stage – rather than in the audience. Would she still be able to hold her balances on pointe now that she is also required to balance the office books?

Tamara Rojo and Vadim Muntagirov © Patrick Baldwin
Tamara Rojo and Vadim Muntagirov
© Patrick Baldwin

The answer is a resounding yes. Tamara Rojo, who took over the plum job – her first as a director – at the start of this season, decided that she is not ready to hang up her satin shoes just yet and proved that she is still dancing in top form, showing that she has lost none of her famous balancing tricks, nor her technical abilities, despite the multi-demands which now take her out of the studio. Petite and pretty, she makes a delicate princess, light and swift as she encircles the stage. Her dancing offers a rich understanding of the classical tradition, enhancing every move with innate musicality. She still shows off multiple pirouettes, often keeping the orchestra waiting while she completes them, and she dances with a stylish grace gained through years of experience. While I would have liked to have seen more joy and excitement in her initial entrance as a sixteen-year-old, and more eye contact with her fellow dancers, she nevertheless brought up the performing standard in the whole company.

MacMillan originally created his version of the famous Russian ballet for American Ballet Theatre in 1987. His background was of course The Royal Ballet, where he danced in several productions of this great masterpiece; consequently, his offering is not too different choreographically to that in the Royal Opera House. He has created a new Garland Dance for Act I, which is pretty in burnished apricot costumes, and was well performed here by the young members of ENB, and also new divertissements for the fairy-tale characters in Act III. The result is a very satisfying production to watch, especially when danced with such vigour and enjoyment as in this opening performance.

Visually stunning, the ballet harks back to sumptuous stagings of long ago. Peter Farmer’s sets give the feeling of opulence, yet, unlike so many productions today, leave the stage open for large swathes of dancing. The costumes, created by Nicholas Georgiadis, come straight from National Gallery paintings, with the sheen of the materials catching the light in the folds of the court ladies’ elaborate dresses. Their bewigged consorts are equally striking in silken pantaloons, ornate, lace-cuffed jackets and high-heeled shoes, and the various classical tutus are glitteringly beautiful with much intricate detailing.

Like their costumes, the company positively shone in style and dancing and (hopefully) were all thoroughly enjoying themselves – their smiles certainly suggested this. The five fairies at Aurora’s christening performed their solos with delicacy and fine technique. Singled out are two who will be competing in the company’s Emerging Dancer Award in March – and they showed why they had been selected. As Fairy of the Woodland Glade, Laurretta Summerscales, was beautifully controlled, offering gracious épaulement and confident poses, while in Act II, she made a joyous and buoyant Friend of Aurora. Nancy Osbaldeston bubbles with delight especially as Fairy of the Golden Vine, where she sped across the wide Coliseum stage in a series of intricate steps. She then showed her dramatic skills as Red Riding Hood with Max Westwell as the Wolf in the final act. Yonah Acosta and Shiori Kose sparkled as the Bluebird and Princess Florine in the divertissements, he leaping high and she delicately jumping and turning.

Prima ballerina Daria Klimentová was a gentle and convincing Lilac Fairy, confident in the tricky technicalities of the role. Never rushed, her movements were refined and gracious and her mime with Carabosse the bad fairy, was very clear. Carabosse, as danced by James Streeter, was a cross between Good Queen Bess and a pantomime dame. In crinoline and with bright red curly hair and whitened face, he made the most of his wicked curse on the baby princess, rubbing his hands with glee and scaring the court-folk. The poor bumbling, absent-minded Cattalabutte (Michael Coleman) who had missed “her” off the invitation list, stood no chance against this fairy’s malicious attack.

And then there is Vadim Muntagirov (Prince Desiree), the embodiment of the grace and elegance of Russian classical ballet. Soft-footed, he soars and lands in perfect fifth, turns on the spot with no sense of effort, and he has a glorious line, which is shown off in all his poses. He still could do with some acting lessons though, as he depends on his often pensive smile to see him through. He is new to partnering Rojo – (he has been dancing with Klimentová since he joined the company and together they have made a stunning partnership) – it is obvious that they are not yet “joined at the hip”, especially since she made more eye contact with the audience than with her prince. (Worth mentioning for good characterization was Bridgett Zehr, as the Countess in Act II, whose eyes never stopped dancing as she flirted with the Prince.)

The ENB orchestra under the baton of Gavin Sutherland brought Tchaikovsky’s wonderful score to surging life, encouraging all the dancers to shine – which they did.