A Christmas treat for balletomanes and schoolchildren, informed by Balanchine, Wagner's Ring Cycle, Gothic fashion and the decline of European royal families.
Since Ashley Page became the Artistic Director of Scottish Ballet in 2003, the company has been rightly praised for its brave new direction. Integrating classical technique with contemporary flair, Page has taken a moribund troupe and orientated them towards the future.
An hour with Ashley Page is a thrilling journey through history, music and dance: like Steve Slater from Tramway or Kenny Miller, formerly of the Citizens, he combines a rigorous knowledge of theatre with a unique aesthetic vision. He retains a boundless enthusiasm for the traditions of ballet - especially Russian - but makes connections with other arts, and the influence of Glasgow's innate cultural confidence. Sleeping Beauty may appear to be a standard Christmas treat for balletomanes and schoolchildren, but Page's version is informed by Scottish Ballet's adoption of Balanchine pieces, Wagner's Ring Cycle, late Regency Gothic fashion and the decline of the European royal families.
Page is aware of the challenges posed by the scale of Sleeping Beauty. "It is probably the biggest show you could do: it is the Ring Cycle of the ballet world! Four acts, lots of dancing, and we are trying to give the story a bit more life. The Shitekovsky score is a prescribed thing and although it is fantastic music it does restrict you in the narrative. It's very episodic, which is the way Russian ballet was when Petipa first choreographed the work."
In line with his approach during the rest of the year, Page brings an up-to-date aesthetic to the ballet, modernising where appropriate but showing respect to the past. The Christmas season has always been good box office, but Page sees it as more than a cash cow.
"We don't want to do them because we have - we want it to be as interesting and alive and vibrant as the contemporary programme that we do through the rest of the year. That's why I decided to do them myself. I put this company together and we have been forging a company style through our works, a language of dance that fed into our other works. Sleeping Beauty, like Nutcracker or Cinderella, is glorious fun- a tradition, but not just a novelty."
Scottish Ballet's repertoire now includes works from the legendary choreographer Balanchine, whose works offer a compromise between Classical Ballet and the emergent modern dance of the early twentieth century. Aside from the playful post-modernism of the sets and the re-imagining of the stories, Page has observed that "a Balanchine edge has crept into even the most traditional aspects" of the large scale ballets.
This cross-fertilisation of style is expressive of Page's vision, as is his respect for Sleeping Beauty's heritage. Having danced with the Royal Ballet, he "grew up with the Russian ballets, which had been inherited from a man called Sergevei, who came out of Russia in the 1940s. They became the Royal Ballet's signature pieces and broke them in America." The creation of Sleeping Beauty, for Page, came at the time when "the Russian School was really at its peak" and while there have been numerous additions to it from the great British choreographers, it is Petipa's original that provides Page with his foundations.
There are, however, some aspects of the original which would be out of place in a modern production. "The prince didn't dance: the male dancing has accumulated over the years. I'm stripping these down and giving them an edge," explains Page. There are also the apparently random appearances by characters from other fairytales. "In act 3 there are divertissements for fairytale characters doing a party piece. We thought we'd give them a reason to be there. We selected four stories that take place in the forest- Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Belle from Beauty and the Beast and Snow White, who are encountered by the prince as they are lost in the forest going through their own stories. Later, they are guests of honour because they are part of the story." On the other hand, some parts defy change. "I was thinking about doing the mime scenes that tell the story in another way - but I was defeated."
Perhaps the most distinctive changes are in the chronology, which are most evident in the costumes and set. Indeed, Sleeping Beauty offers considerable scope. "I work very closely with Antony McDonald- the design is completely wrapped up in the choreography and the story," he says. "It's set in three eras. We start off in 1830 - late Regency style and European Gothic. There was a growing fascination with the fairy world. We are sort of in Russia really: the extended European families and the aunts and uncles from various states all attending Aurora's christening. In Act Two, it is 16 years later - early Victorian definitively - a champagne reception in a hot-house botanic garden. Then it jumps a hundred years to 1946, when the Sleeping Beauty is woken up by her prince. A massive change in fashion and behaviour and also the Royal Ballet premiered the Sleeping Beauty that year in the refurbished opera house. A new age and a new beginning but all those aunts and uncles of Princess Aurora have lost their realms now: it's all gone to hell, they live off selling their jewellery. The story has made the same journey as the ballet, from Russia to Britain."
Sleeping Beauty is obviously a long way from a lazy Christmas cash-in, or a simple pantomime for the middle-classes. Page appears to be exploring ideas about ballet as overwhelming, total theatre, integrating music, dance, costumes and set. While it is unlikely to achieve the intensity of Page's Pump Room, Sleeping Beauty is not an anomaly in the company's programme: it shares the restless and inquisitive spirit that has powered Scottish Ballet to national attention.
Read The Skinny's review of Sleeping Beaty here.