Frederick Ashton used to say it was like a lesson in choreography every time he watched The Sleeping Beauty. For Kenneth MacMillan too, the ballet was the pinnacle of classicism and technique and a great test of any company’s skills. Created by Marius Petipa in 1890, it is still one of the most popular classical dance works and more than 120 years later continues to be regularly performed across the world.

Marion Tait as Carabosse, © Bill Cooper
Marion Tait as Carabosse,
© Bill Cooper

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production by Peter Wright is a lavish affair, with glamorous and beautiful designs by Philip Prowse, though the garish red-heeled shoes are a slight anomaly. Tchaikovsky’s music is always a delight and was played well by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under the baton of Koen Kessels. As for the dancers themselves, the corps de ballet were on top form, immaculately rehearsed and precise in their performance, but the principle roles were more mixed in quality.

Whether due to opening London night nerves (with iconic figures such as former Royal Ballet Artistic Director Dame Monica Mason in the audience) or for some other reason, Jenna Roberts was evidently uncomfortable performing the title role in Act I. The famous Rose Adage, in which Aurora dances with four princes and must hold onto each in turn with a moment of balance in between, is renowned for its difficulty. Unfortunately, Roberts made it look as tough as it is, struggling to maintain her poise and shaking as she held each prince’s hand.

However, from Act II onwards, Roberts was like an entirely different person. Alongside partner Ian Mackay, who made for an assured and appealing Prince Florimund with neat and accomplished technique, she seemed to relax infinitely, and her performance across the rest of the ballet was nothing short of transformed. Perhaps, as in The Sleeping Beauty story, our Aurora just needed a handsome prince to rescue her.

There were plenty of pleasing supporting roles. The Prologue Fairies were superbly cast; as the Fairy of Beauty, Natasha Oughred was smooth as velvet and Maureya Lebowitz made for an elegant and lyrical Fairy of Modesty. Fairy of Temperament Momoko Hirata stood out particularly with her strong and vibrant onstage presence; later, as the contrasting Enchanted Princess, Kirata gave a wonderfully delicate and sprightly performance. Marion Tait’s facial expressions as Carabosse were chillingly cruel, and Delia Matthews made a fitting counterpoint as the Lilac Fairy.

Wright’s choreography was generally lovely and occasionally melodramatic. He maintains most of Petipa’s iconic moments whilst adding in a tender post-wake-up pas de deux for the lead couple, as well as some other delightful touches. The Act II dream sequence was particularly charming as beautifully-polished Nymphs moved elegantly around the stage to create pathways along which the Prince could travel to find his princess.

There is lots to like in Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty, in London tonight and then on tour. It’s a sparkling production of a magical fairy tale that brightens up even the dullest Winter day.