Review: lead dancers shine in The Sleeping Beauty, Hong Kong festival finale

The dancing was first class and the designs ravishing in this Mikhailovsky Ballet production, but it’s hard to accept the pointless, banal reimagining of Marius Petipa’s timeless choreography

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 March, 2016, 5:30pm
UPDATED : Monday, 21 March, 2016, 6:03pm

The closing programme of this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival, and its only ballet offering, brought St Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Ballet in Nacho Duato’s version of The Sleeping Beauty.

Visually stunning, with simplified story and choreography, it’s easy to see why the production’s Reader’s Digest approach has delighted general audiences.

Polina Semionova brought radiant star quality and a lovely amplitude of movement to the title role (in the March 19 performance) while Angelina Vorontsova danced with good attack but was more soubrette than imperial princess. The hero of the hour was Leonid Sarafanov, who partnered both ballerinas beautifully and danced with effortless elegance and elan.

It’s equally easy to see why the production has dismayed critics and ballet aficionados.

The original version of The Sleeping Beauty is the greatest achievement of classical ballet’s greatest choreographer, Marius Petipa – nowhere in dance is there a more perfect expression of music through movement. It’s the ultimate benchmark of classical technique and style, so it’s hard to understand why Duato, renowned for his contemporary work, should have chosen to re-choreograph the ballet using classical steps.

A radical “alternative” version of the ballet, like those by Mats Ek or Matthew Bourne, is a valid concept. What Duato has done is equivalent to rewriting the text of Hamlet using pastiche 16th century English – and just as pointless.

It forces comparison with Petipa, a contest Duato can’t win – where Petipa’s choreography is inspired, Duato’s is banal; iconic moments such as the Rose Adagio and the Bluebird pas de deux simply don’t measure up to the originals.

By far the best section is Act 2, for which there’s no accepted standard text. Here Duato comes into his own. The lively trio for two grooms and a maid is an original touch and the slow variation for the Prince (danced with superb expressiveness by Sarafanov) has the fluidity and musicality which distinguish Duato’s best work. The striking treatment of the Wicked Fairy Carabosse (gleefully portrayed by Farukh Ruzimatov) also works well, demonstrating the choreographer’s strong sense of theatre.

The production’s biggest asset is Angelina Atlagic’s ravishing designs. Her costumes are consistently gorgeous, from the pastel tones of the Prologue to the rich autumnal shades of the hunting party scene. Her sets are equally fine, especially the magical forest which grows up around the Princess and the exquisite Watteau-style backdrop in Act 2.

While touted as Russia’s third company, the Mikhailovsky is a good few links lower on the feeding chain than the Big Two – the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky.

Looking under-rehearsed on the first night, the troupe was in better form by the third and final show, with good precision from the corps de ballet, notably in the Garland Dance. However, none of the soloists stood out and the overall sense of engagement to be expected from a top troupe was lacking, with too many expressionless faces on stage.

The Sleeping Beauty, Mikhailovsky Ballet, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre. Reviewed: March 17 and 19