Beauty past and present

These Kenneth Rowell costume designs for the Australian Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty brought back memories of the production’s premiere at the Sydney Opera House.

It was the first ballet performed in the house, in 1973.

The symbolism of Princess Aurora’s awakening makes Beauty the ideal ballet to mark the opening of an opera house – or its re-opening after a time in the dark.

In 1946, the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden re-opened after the war with The Sleeping Beauty while the Bolshoi Theatre has just followed the tradition (in November 2011), re-opening the renovated theatre with a Sleeping Beauty choreographed by Yuri Grigorovich after Marius Petipa. (Scroll down to see images of this and other productions.)

Yet the symbolism of Beauty as a new dawn can sometimes go awry as it did last month when the Spanish choreographer, Nacho Duato, unveiled his first major production as artistic director of the Mikhailovsky Ballet in St Petersburg.

Contemporary dance is in the bones of Duato, the former artistic director of his own company in Spain, so the idea of him leading a Russian ballet company (in a city where Beauty was created) seemed challenging from the start.

The Guardian’s dance critic, Luke Jennings was present at the premiere and recently wrote of the production within the context of the recent machinations in the Russian ballet world.

He found the sets and costumes of Duato’s Beauty, “were charming and the score was conducted with sweeping lyricism by Valery Ovsyanikov.

“The choreographic text, however, was less engaging. While adhering to the original template, Duato had altered the steps to the point where only a ghostly echo of Petipa’s choreography remained. Gone were the jewel-like divertissements, the subtle layers of allegory, the sophisticated use of leitmotif, all replaced by bland pastiche”.

Anna Gordeeva of the Moscow News, found the new choreography “a pretty sad sight” and thought Duato seemed “deaf to Tchaikovsky’s score”.

The production is travelling to New York this year for a season at the David H. Koch Theatre at the Lincoln Centre (19-24 June) and will directly follow the Australian Ballet’s one week season there (12-17 June), providing a perfect opportunity for the New York critics to compare and contrast the Beauty recreation with Graeme Murphy’s recreation of Swan Lake.

Incidentally, the Australian Ballet performances are listed on the Lincoln Centre website as “The Australian Ballet Theater”.

Murphy’s Swan Lake, a major hit for the company on its world wide tours, is a safer bet for New York than any of its three Sleeping Beauty productions which include the Helpmann-van Praagh ballet, Maina Gielgud’s production of 1984 and Stanton Welch’s of 2005.

Gielgud’s production was the first ballet to be performed in the State Theatre in the Victorian Arts Centre, and also toured to London in 1988.

Kristian Fredrikson, who worked so successfully with Graeme Murphy on his Swan Lake and Nutcracker, often told me how keen he was to work on a new Beauty. His collaborator when the time came was Welch not Murphy. Fredrikson died in the same year that the Welch production premiered.

Kenneth Rowell’s costume sketches for the 1973 production were published in a lavish souvenir program. A reference copy of the program is held in the performing arts’ program collection of the Mitchell Library in Sydney.