Tipped as one of the most stupendous shows we’ve seen in a while, The Sleeping Beauty is the ideal ballet production to usher in the fantasy and light spirit of spring. Until 18 September, the Cape Town City Ballet (CTCB) is braving new waters with two of their most promising dancers taking the age-old fable’s leads. Compared with Manon or Giselle, Sleeping Beauty doesn’t offer its dancers much interpretative range: its lovers Aurora and Florimund are too saccharine, too purely the fairytale prince and princess. Yet inventive dancers can still infuse a stylistic, perhaps even moral, nuance within the ballet. And last Friday there was much chatter and excitement in the audience about what kind of Aurora Angela Hansford would dance in her debut role.
If a ballerina can be judged purely on her ability to command the stage under any circumstance, then Hansford certainly comes up smiling. She held her own as the Woodland Glade Fairy next to esteemed international dancers a week ago and now – during the second leg of the production when local dancers take the leads – she steals the show as the supple Princess Aurora. Hansford has honed her own intriguing alchemy, boasting unexpectedly impressive turns. Most engagingly, she paints Aurora’s inner world with real craft: her eyes and hands are in constant, eloquent dialogue with the stage around her. Although she briefly came undone during an intense pirouette segment, the result was merely that Aurora appeared to have the precision of an acrobat, rather than a playful and elegant tête-à-tête with prospective suitors. Even with such high stakes, Hansford appeared radiantly unfazed by the setback and she then sailed through the famously challenging Rose Adagio balances, shaping each with an excellent command of musicality and unique style.
And if Aurora makes us believe in beauty, so does her Prince. With classic fairytale prince looks, Daniel Szybkowski tackles his character’s technical challenges with bravado. Szybkowski looks and dances like a man in love. At his most precise, princely and persuasive, Szybkowski exudes an innocent charm and calculated footwork that gives the ballet some much needed character and fluidity. We already know Szybkowski to be an exemplary partner, as well as a dancer of elegant clarity. Yet he laces the dutiful Florimund with a startlingly fresh twist, the bred in-the-bone hauteur softened by a Romantic melancholy.
The comic and campy timing of Mervyn Williams as the outstandingly wicked Carabosse is superb, yet it is eventually derailed by Claire Spector’s Lilac Fairy. Spector’s fine dancing infuses her whimsical fairy with a gentle manipulation and impeccable footwork. The production is supplemented by supporting virtuosos such as Thomas Thorne, Bradley Van Heerden and Kim Veira who stuns with superhuman leaps, while keeping the running time under two hours.
While the vision scene in the forest still creeps a little, the rest of Sleeping Beauty generally moves at a brisk pace, speeded along by Tchaikovsky’s timeless score. Set in a very opulent French baroque palace where elaborate lighting effects and painterly backdrops abound, Peter Cazalet’s design direction is rich and eloquent without being too overwhelming. From swathes of gold and pristine white, to dashing courtiers in rose pink and luminous aqua, and, finally, the dazzling white and gold wedding recalling the jaw-droppingly lavish setting of Marie Antoinette’s Versailles.
The CTCB appear to have put huge resources into striking a natural balance between dance and setting, and it shows. The perfect equilibrium ultimately results in an emotive dance rendering, transporting the audience members to the romantic and unapologetically rich splendour of pre-revolutionary France.
Benn Van Der Westhuizen
The Sleeping Beauty runs at the Artscape Theatre from 2 to 18 September 2016.