sat 20/07/2024

The Sleeping Beauty, Bolshoi Ballet, Royal Opera House | reviews, news & interviews

The Sleeping Beauty, Bolshoi Ballet, Royal Opera House

The Sleeping Beauty, Bolshoi Ballet, Royal Opera House

Eyewatering luxury on stage rather overwhelms the dancing impression

All that glitters: the Bolshoi's opulent new Sleeping BeautyImages Bolshoi Ballet

The Bolshoi Theatre reopened in late autumn 2011 after a problematic six-year refurbishment said to have cost a tidy billion dollars, many times its original estimate thanks to corruption - it needed a corker of a ballet premiere to pop the eyes of a cynical Russian public, and it set upon a new staging of The Sleeping Beauty.

This was also problematic, as three years earlier it had been promised to the then ballet director Alexei Ratmansky, who had soon afterwards resigned his job, wretched and miserable with the corrosive relationships within the theatre. And it was reassigned to the veteran former Bolshoi director Yuri Grigorovich, by now in his mid-80s, whose followers had been, in part, Ratmansky’s downfall.

What do we see? Gold, gleaming gold, eye-blistering baroque gold, twirling round ivory barley-sugar twist columns that each, I’m told, required its own shipping container from Russia, all designed by the master of lavish majesty, Ezio Frigerio, who brought more restrained fabulousness to Rudolf Nureyev’s productions for Paris Opera Ballet and English National Ballet, and who designed Nureyev’s grave in Paris. Evidently tens of millions of rubles have been spent on this production, and it doesn't intend to hide it.

Frigerio Sleeping Beauty set for BolshoiThis production may be as significant for what it symbolises as the original 1890 one, both being displays of power and wealth. The first Sleeping Beauty was a piece of political art, flattering the Tsar Alexander III by implicitly comparing him to the legendary Sun King, Louis XIV of France, whose court was evoked in the first (St Petersburg) production. I wonder if there has been a more political production since than this Bolshoi one, created to offer a disillusioned nation escapist theatrical luxury even in the straitened Putinist Russia of the 21st century, perhaps to translate homage to historic royal symbolism into a tribute to the great Bolshoi Theatre and Russian supremacy, and to once again show art’s gratitude to the super-wealthy patrons who like visible evidence of their influence. Why wouldn't it? Covent Garden's patrons like recognition too.

Yuri Grigorovich's latest version of The Sleeping Beauty (his fifth) follows the Soviet traditions that discreetly downgraded monarchical and religious nuances in the dance formations in order to raise up the sheer prettiness and femininity of classical dancing, and is kind to the audience by being sliced into two long acts, which makes it feel shorter and tauter than the usual three-act deployment.

Frigerio’s sets dominate my vision, the soaring white barley-sugar marble pillars wrapped in gilded ribbons, the glittering gold balustrades and finials, the eye-wateringly ostentatious gold fountain in front of an Italian rotunda, the huge wrought black and gold gateway. There's no place here for brambles and briars, cobwebs and dust. The floor is marbled, and there are masted ships in the background unloading, no doubt, yet more gold and diamonds from Russia’s vast deposits. Frigerio has transposed the flattery from 1890 to 2011, the target implicitly changed from Tsar to President. (Pictured above right, the set.)

Conductor and orchestra whistled like an express train across the ecology of fairytales that patterns this mysterious, wonderful ballet

Franca Squarciapino’s costumes, in her trademark grand plumed hats and rich taffetas, add fashionable rustle to the swaying willow-bodies of the Russian dancers, but Vinicio Cheli's ungenerous lighting regrettably flattens the dancers into moving distractions in front of the dominant scenery, and the choreography (as with Maria Bjørnson’s famously assertive and costly set for the Royal Ballet in 1994) is rather lost amid the luxury landmarks.

But what of the contents of this unimaginably rich envelope? Last night’s opening performance of the Bolshoi’s short presentation of their biggest ballet to London suffered from another dismal musical experience provided by Pavel Sorokin and the Bolshoi orchestra. They played Tchaikovsky's great score as if so familiar with it that they need pay no attention, whistling like an express train across the ecology of fairytales that patterns this mysterious, wonderful ballet.

Sorokin’s prominence in world ballet companies astonishes me, given how little sensitivity he shows to orchestral timbre and tempi. His leading violinist played Aurora’s solos with the finesse of a pub fiddler, and brass grunted without delicacy. With more love from the musicians every fairy could offer her own separate story and symbolism, and the choreographic changes need not spell a total loss of mystical otherworldliness.

Continued overleaf

Ekaterina Krysanova’s Aurora was much better than her forced Gamzatti in La Bayadère the other night; a petite, precise, fresh young princess, she comes from the less noticed part of Bolshoi cultivation, the demure geranium beds, rather than the crimson peony borders where Plisetskayas and Osipovas grow. True, the peonies make more of the wedding act, which requires Big Personality, and Krysanova’s articulate, gentle dancing did not expand to fill that vast regal demand that caps this momentous ballet.

Watch her entrance as Princess Aurora on this amateur video of this Bolshoi staging

But she wasn’t given much help by Artem Ovcharenko as her Prince, an admirable male stylist without much individual resonance. The character of the Prince sets real identity problems for a dancer choosing his style, whether in the Mariinsky’s magnificent, much-mourned reconstruction of the original, in which he largely sashayed about regally in a grand hat, or in this Grigorovich Beauty, which gives the Prince a post-Soviet Botoxing with an inappropriately flashy solo of introduction. Ovcharenko’s body flies like a big strong albatross through the jetés, but his soul doesn’t go with it.

Ekaterina Shipulina was a lyrical Lilac Fairy if not commanding affairs like a queen of the supernatural; she was spicily opposed by Alexei Loparevich’s witch of a Carabosse, a lanky, gawky, spooky Baba Yaga of indeterminate sex, strayed in from the forest in his black cloak, a subversive figure contaminating the court’s spotless order. I liked him a lot, and I loved his demonically horned and scaly-backed attendants.

Anastasia Stashkevich and Kristina Kretova are making friends in London with their obvious class: the former here as the Canari qui chante fairy, the latter as a smiling Princess Florine with all-round ballerina qualities.

For followers of ongoing power-games and allegations in the Bolshoi, I report that Denis Rodkin, one of Nikolai Tsiskaridze’s pupils, performed Bluebird in place of an injured Vladislav Lantratov, and there was also on stage, as a fairy’s page, Batyr Annadurdyev, a close friend of the dancer accused of setting up the acid attack on ballet director Sergei Filin. All casts, it’s reported, have been approved by Filin from his clinic in Germany.

Find @ismeneb on Twitter


What a great review, it catches well the political implications of this production. Such a shame that the orchestra has not made a favorable impression! A little sorry you were writing it not about the cast with Hallberg and Zakharova, they say David saved the tale

Cold war at it's worse. Noone sane would link ballet productions to politics in Russia. Great ballets live doesn't matter what, it's art in it's pure form and it's only British critics who see things which are just not there. Putin and Perro's fairytale? Ridiculous thing to say.

I disagree very strongly. Ismene's reasoning could hardly be more sane and valuable as a record of the turbulent artistic times through which a blighted Russia is going at the moment. The Vsevolozhsky/Tchaikovsky/Petipa WAS a statement, in part, of Russian imperial power. Its survival as a masterwork has nothing to do with that any more. This sounds - though I haven't seen it - like ballet bling of the sort the (now entirely governmental) plutocrats roundly applaud.

These visits are not just about art; they're ambassadorial, to show off Russia's resources. The dancers may not be linked to that personally, but as members of the Bolshoi company they are part of the state machinery whether they like it or not. Remember Stoppard - little as I usually care for him - in Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, something along the lines of 'Russia shows the world it's very good at sputnik and Swan Lake'? It's as simple as that.

Gosh. As an Ismene admirer who has, from time to time, found himself fed up by some of her more fanciful literary/poetic digressions, I nevertheless thought she was pretty much on the money here, especially as supported by David Nice. Thank you both.

A truly shameless ignorant rant – more hackneyed russophibia and not much of a review. It starts with a politicised, embarrassingly tenuous and contrived copula to a supposedly “strained Putinist Russia”, as opposed a liberated land of artistic mediocrities that is UK today and desecrated and bastardised gimmicks from the NEB. This “strained” preamble colours the rest of this dismal Ismene Brown’s piece throughout and makes it irrelevant. This unveiled russophobia and poorly concealed jealousy at own silent admission that the Russian performing arts remain unsurpassed, pervades the rest of Ismene’s review. Ismene Brown either needs a jolly vigorous ear dewaxing or a hearing aid. As an orchestra musician myself I did not hear a false note during the Tuesday’s performance, let a lone a train whistle (too much watching Railway Children nostalgia, perhaps Ismene?). Bolshoi’s Sleeping Beauty is a masterful display of artistic virtuosity and passion from supremely schooled dancers and musicians. Bolshoi still shows us how it is done.

Remarkable. The Soviet-era propaganda machine - giveaway 'Bolshoi' rather than 'the Bolshoi' - is still at work. As for 'supposedly "strained Putinist Russia" ', may I refer you to Stephen Fry's dazzlingly detailed 'open letter' to Cameron and the Olympic committee? One thing of value here - you've introduced me to the word 'copula', though I'm still not sure about the context in which you use it.

The Soviet-era propaganda machine was created by the USA and UK propaganda machines which are very much in motion today with their frightening uniformity of opinion. So bereft of your own you are bottom-feeding for opinions even though on a subject utterly unrelated to ballet. I suppose in a propaganda war all means are justified, no matter how irrelevant and risible. I pity Like Stephen Fry, not least for displaying his utter ignorance and making a fool of himself in the process. Following the herd and slavishly trusting their media, is what the British have always done but I'd advise you to research the subject before throwing one of Fry's non-argument into the "ballet" mix. The "Anti-Gay" law is yet another russophobic creation of the "free world" propaganda since the actual legislation titled "Law on the protection of children from information promoting denial of traditional family values". For the ignorant this translates as a ban on promoting non-traditional (gay) relationships to minors (under 18s), mainly in schools. The law was passed following a nationwide consultation with regional legislatures and a series of debates in the duma and reflects the overwhelming public opinion in Russia, and not the whim of Putin as the Western media will have you believe. The text of the law has no mention of regulating non-traditional consensual adult relationships and therefore imposes no infringements on the rights of any social group whatsoever. So hopefully I have introduced you to more than one concept. Please do bear in mind that Bolshoi is the correct translation from Russian and NOT the Bolshoi. Will be happy to explain why.

Pravda ili nyet? *backs off nervously*

Congrats on the grasp of three Russian words. Poor show for the ad hominem English though. Tears.

Good heavens - ballet's been a court art from its very origins, designed to divert and distract. Is there really much dispute about it? Most opera houses don't pass up the chance to use classical ballet to display wealth, taste, national pride, and in this ballet above all; the Sadler's Wells Ballet's post-war Sleeping Beauty did so, and I have no doubt the Bolshoi intended the same for the theatre reopening. I don't criticise it, I observe it. It just is, like blueness in cheese. It makes this kind of ballet a more interestingly layered artform. As for the music - after I'd written my review, I searched past reviews of mine over the years and found that where I had heard Sorokin I had almost always commented on his rough conducting. So evidently my innocent ear keeps finding the same issues with him. I rarely pre-check cast sheets for names, as I prefer to try to approach every performance with a blank sheet, as much as possible. It's risky - you might suddenly hate someone you loved last time, or vice versa - but it's a kind of test to myself.

I have little interest in the political issues debated above ;I found The evening (Weds) a huge disappointment and yearned for the current Peter Wright production from almost the minute the curtain rose on a set which reminded me of Cesar's Palace,Las Vegas. I could possibly have coped with that but the choreographic revisions were banal (eg garland dance)and the dancing in the main,average.The audience seemed to lap it up....especially the ghastly Red Riding Hood(most applause of the evening) which I found even more distressing.

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters