It’s nearly Christmas, and with the holiday season upon us, it’s time again for one of the Singapore Dance Theatre’s annual holiday classics – Sleeping Beauty – which happened from 6-9 December at Esplanade Theatre. It’s a familiar tale involving the spell of a 100-year sleep, a charming prince, and a true love’s kiss which awakens the kingdom’s slumber.
Sleeping Beauty was the culmination of arguably the era’s most talented artists in their respective fields – the prolific choreographer Marius Petipa, and legendary maestro, Pyotr Tchaikovsky. This three-hour extravaganza spared no expense when it comes to lavish costumes (designed by Tracy Grant Lord) and an amazing set staged by Janek Schergen to the live performance of the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra.
The prologue tells the story of Princess Aurora’s birth in a mass dance display of colour and lavish costumes. As a ballet performance, it also features several non-dancing roles – the most notable of which is the role of Carabosse (Elaine Heng), the vengeful fairy, who arrives in all her dark-robed glory, flanked by her four dancing elves, in order to curse baby Aurora to die on her 16th birthday. This is when the gentle Lilac Fairy (Li Jie) comes forward to soften the curse – by putting the entire kingdom in a 100-year slumber instead.
In Act 1, we see a grown-up Aurora (Chihiro Uchida) who emerges onto the scene with poise and precision. Villagers dance the waltz, with Aurora performing to an adagio with four suitors where she balances on one leg, perfectly poised as she passes from suitor to suitor in a splendid display of finesse.
Towards the end of the scene, Carabosse emerges to deliver the fatal spindle – and Aurora pricks her finger to much fanfare and drama worthy of an opera.
In Act 2, the scene dramatically changes to an ethereal forest, complete with draping moss – this is when we first see Prince Charming (Kenya Nakamura), whose high jumps across the stage are effortless and airy. Here, the dramatic stage lighting and the use of stage smoke add to the air of fantasy as the Lilac Fairy approaches on her winged chariot, leading the Prince to her Sleeping Beauty after he defeats Carabosse.
It is said that Sleeping Beauty is a barometer for any ballet company – and the role of Aurora is one of the most demanding in terms of talent and technique. This ballet favours finesse rather than dynamic movement (which were mostly performed by the men with plentiful jumps across the stage), where ballerinas are often poised in the attitude position (standing on one pointed foot with the other lifted in a bent knee), supported by their male partners. While stationary, it’s a move that seems to take the most toll on the dancers.
Act 3 – the wedding scene – is the gem of the performance, where pairs (or trios) of dancers perform centrestage, showcasing their form and talent as they flit across the stage in airy jumps or pirouettes in tandem with each other. In what may be a weird twist to the tale, we see the appearance of Puss in Boots (Reece Hudson) and his companion White Cat (Mai Suzuki) joining in the celebratory dance, who seem to perform solely for the benefit of the children in the audience.
Beyond the gorgeous sets and lavishly designed costumes, the astounding control of both Aurora and the Prince in their pas de deux and the other delightful dancers make the performance a joy to watch.
The Story Behind the Story
Sleeping Beauty is based on an age-old French fairy-tale which was brought to live by Ivan Vesvelozhsky (1835-1909), Director of the Russian Imperial Theatre. As a lover of all things French, he created the ballet in the style of Louis XIV and commissioned Marius Petipa and Pyotr Tchaikovsky for the creation of the ballet.
Marius Petipa is regarded as one of the greatest ballet teachers and choreographers of all time, and Sleeping Beauty was considered a maturation of his choreographic design with its sophisticated shapes and symbols shaped by the dancers’ bodies.
With his signature danceable tunes, Pyotr Tchaikovsky was commissioned for Sleeping Beauty and it quickly became one of his crowning achievements. Working closely with Petipa, he composed music specifically for each dancer or scene – this is clearly evident in the performance where each step taken matches precisely to the score.
As one of their enduring creative partnerships, the three men would later give the world another beloved ballet – The Nutcracker – just three years later. Together with Swan Lake (1876) and Sleeping Beauty, the three are now considered the canon of classics that form the core of any great ballet troupe’s repertoires.