Christopher Wheeldon's production of "The Sleeping Beauty" for Nikolaj Hübbe's Royal Danish Ballet aims to build on the core values of the company, including the strong dramatic skills of its performers. Therefore more focus has been put on the character parts, and he has built bigger roles for Carabousse and the Lilac fairy, the latter a mime part in this production.
The result is a very skillful production with a fast pace, but unfortunately Wheeldon's choice of designer is counter to his project of making this Beauty a truly Danish Beauty.
A friend of mine who loved "Sleeping Beauty", never the less fast forwarded through several scenes when he watch his favorite ballet on VHS. I would say that the Wheeldon's production comes very close to his cut version. The hunt scene is down to a modern two minutes sketch and there is no panorama. The good thing is that it does not hurt the beauty to be more of a sprint. Wheeldon shows his skills in not only creating appealing choreography for many types of smaller and greater ensembles. He has also managed to build a modern framework around the fairy tale that actually works.
During the overture we see a small boy visiting an art exhibition with his parents. The bossier of two female custodians hurries the family along, while the softer one encourages him to enjoy the story of Sleeping Beauty, illustrated on a series of canvasses. By the end of the scene we realises that the two custodians are identical with Carabousse and Lilac Fairy.
For Carabousse, Christopher Wheeldon has managed to persuade the great Danish ballerina- turned-mime Sorella Englund back to the stage. She has not performed since Nikolaj Hübbe's farewell performance more than three years ago. As the Lilac Fairy, Mette Bødtcher brings her poise and elegance to the part. The focus on the negative/positive forces become the signature of the production and colours the story, even to the point where the gold and silver divertissement in Act III is danced by a younger incarnation of the two fairies.
It is therefore particularly annoying that this core intention with the ballet is ruined to a large extent by the costumes by Jérôme Kaplan. Mr. Kaplan has designed a beautiful decor which combines an old print look, old style scenery effects like heavy skies (resembling the beautiful scenarios at the 17th century Drottningholm Theatre) and moving columns with great effect. Unfortunately some of the costumes not only mar the dancing, but also totally eliminates the RDB dancers' ability to act their parts.
A caged bluebird
Of the dancing segments two stand out in a negative way. The fairies in the proloque wear a la greque tunics in miss-matched colours and designs and their partners are in tunics and plates. The solos demands tutu and the aesthetics demands some kind of coherence. Neither is the men's ensemble choreographed for bare legs and skirts.
But even worse is the get up for bluebird. A combination of blue knee long tricot and what can only be decribed as a corset with nothing on top is a demeaning costume and an insult to the dancer. I was surprised to read that Jérôme Kaplan has a long resume as a ballet designer, because these costumes showed little or no understanding of the demands of classical ballet. Like many scenographers his best work is one of the non dancing roles. Great royal robes, nice court and corps, but too many misses on the dancing front.
Hiding the talent
Unfortunately Kaplan has not really gotten the memo on the Danish project. In the introduction, Carabousse's entre in the Proloque was shown in practice clothes and the choreography and mimes for her four followers looked poignant and strong and allowed the dancers to really show their character building skills. It looked strong, interesting and inventive. But once in costume it lost most of its nerve. Kaplan's costumes not only cover most of the dancers' faces, but are also top heavy on wigs and gender-bending Elizabethan looks. Only mime star Morten Eggert managed to make a strong impact in spite of the costume. It is annoying when Wheeldon truly understands the uniqueness of the company that he cannot control the designer to make room in the design that allows the artists to show their craft. Likewise resident mime genius Flemming Ryberg is overdressed as a silly Catalabutte. Turn down the volume and Ryberg's acting and comedic timing would carry the day.
It was planned that the premiere should be danced by current dream team Gudrun Bojesen and Alban Lendorf, and the marketing focused solely on the two stars, who recently were a smash hit in "Swan Lake"; but unfortunately Bojesen sustained a minor injury a few days prior to the premiere and that catapulted third cast principals veteran Caroline Cavallo, set to retire in December, and Ulrik Birkkjær, the latest appointed male principal to first cast.
Cavallo is in great shape for a dancer on the brink of retirement. She can still hold every balance required and is musical and elegant, but her dancing has lost a considerable amount of flexibility, bounce and flow. Since being appointed to principal status last winter, Birkkjær has had a full hand of leading roles, but has really only shone in the character part of Demetrius in John Neumeier's "A Midsummer Night's Dream". He has a good basic technique and strong, fast pirouettes, but he cannot present a satisfactory coherent image of a leading dancer. His lines are messy, his turnout tends to disappear and his acting skills are limited. But where Cavallo could only be measure against the memory of Bojesen, Birkkjær had to compete with real life Alban Lendorf, present as a fairy cavalier and as Bluebird. And even though Alban Lendorf was cursed with probably the two worst costumes of the evening, the quality of his dancing placed him securely as the leading male performer of the night and as the strongest card of the RDB. In the gold and silver divertissement Soloist Marcin Kupinsky and corps member (with lot of leading roles), Gregory Dean also raised the bar for good male dancing. The four princes in the Rose Adagio were in very good hands with Mads Blangstrup, Jean Lucien Massot, Andrew Bowman and Fernando Moro.
The second performance I caught starred Jodie Thomas and Thomas Lund as the lead couple. Soloist Jodie Thomas joined the company last year and is a strong, small and competent dancer, although not dramatically strong nor able to match Lund in elegance and style. But she was wise enough to follow his lead and thereby this performance gained not only a heart but also a significant style and expression. Lund was on top of his game and added a lot of personal touches. His ability to form and fill a character was prominent and every phrase was considered and developed to stylish peaks.
For the female wing, Caroline Baldwin made a strong debut as a fairy and as a young Lilac fairy in third act disvertissment, Hilary Gusviler dazzled as the first fairy and Diana Cuni and Alessandra Lo Sardo also demonstrated their genuine talent. However the greatest discovery of the evening was the realisation that RDB now has a very strong female corps led by a group of 8 - 10 dancers carrying most of the divertissements and smaller ensembles. It is an international group, but a growing number of the dancers have joined the company as aspirants and therefore have assimilated the company's dancing style. Names like Lena Maria Gruber, Shelby Elsbrey, J'aime Crandall and Alba Nadal really takes responsibility and is the component that really propels the company to first class status.
Allthough Wheeldon managed to deliver a Danish "Sleeping Beauty" and most of his changes made sense, it also showed that although one can press "Sleeping Beauty" in a more dramatic direction, it is not possible to move very far from the more stylistic impact. The music will simply not allow it. The RDB has received a better choreographed work than the previous Helgi Thomasson version and it has shown that the company can raise to the challenge. Hopefully this will not be the last time the company will work with Wheeldon.
Choosing to exchange the popular and pretty "Sleeping Beauty" already in stock with a totally new and unknown production is an example of Hübbe's brave and somewhat daredevil approach to balletmastership. But this is a gamble that hassucceeded and resulted in a strong new production build on the company strengths. One may hope that the company get the financial resources to be able to continue taking chances, because it is essential if the company shall continue to ddevelop. In his 2.5 years as ballet master Hübbe has built a quality repertoire and to develop not only potential new stars to take over when a lot of the leading dancers will bow out to retirement. He has also managed to raise the quality of the corps to the present high level, which in itself will broaden which works the company can tackle.