Created in 1890 by the great Marius Petipa, to Tchaikovsky’s astonishing score, The Sleeping Beauty has little of the dramatic fuel that powers most full-evening ballets. There’s no illicit love or lust, no intrigue, no murder (just one swiftly thwarted attempt), and only the most broadly sketched “journeys” for the two lead characters, Princess Aurora and Prince Florimund. In fact, you could almost see it above all as a series of exquisitely choreographed vignettes, stitched together by a token plot.
This pinnacle of 19th-century classicism remains, however, the ne plus ultra showpiece for any ballet company, the arch test of its collective mettle. There’s no refuge to be had in emoting or suchlike: it’s either danced properly or it isn’t.
On Thursday afternoon, at Covent Garden, things didn’t get off to a brilliant start. The fairies’ solos at Aurora’s christening are jewel-like little opportunities for a clutch of female dancers to sparkle. But, despite some super names in the line-up, there was a more or less perfunctory air about them: not awful, but with little projection, poor épaulement, and some remarkably noisy bouréeing. Taken together, they lacked regality, authority, pizzazz, with the often delectable Beatriz Stix-Brunell – as the all-important Lilac Fairy – making particularly heavy weather of her section.
Still, there was hope. Elizabeth McGorian was a serene and dignified Queen, Christina Arestis a gleefully entertaining Carabosse. And the reason there was such an unusual front-of-house buzz for a matinée was that this was Francesca Hayward’s debut in this uniquely challenging role, with the added allure that her regular onstage partner, Alexander Campbell, was also making a debut, as Florimund.
Hayward is a young principal who has so far turned everything she’s touched to gold, but even she seemed fazed at first. She snatched slightly nervously at the first succession of balances, and, even by the more coolly tackled second lot, her dancing still felt a fraction pinched by her normal standards. She acquitted herself well, but still seemed not entirely herself.
However, once that fiendishly exposed passage was over, she seemed to breathe an invisible (and entirely understandable) sigh of relief, and opened up like the most magnificent flower. In her subsequent solo, time appeared to pause contentedly for her as she crossed the stage en pointe, while her poetically flickering jetés as she returned to the right filled the entire stage with movement.
In Act II, Campbell made a typically likeable and committed first impression as a privileged fellow with something missing in his life, and he and Hayward formed an instantly satisfying bond in the Vision scene (well done the corps here, too). By the Act III grand pas de deux, that unity looked aptly complete: they delivered a masterclass of teamwork in the trio of fish-dives, and indeed Campbell’s partnering, and finishing, was always spot-on.
As for the soloists here, Valentino Zucchetti found a nice buoyancy and some satisfying mid-air angles as the Bluebird, but the rest were once again all-too-swiftly expunged from the memory by Hayward. Her resplendent bearing, crystalline footwork and regally unhurried musicality put her in a class of her own – a princess indeed.
In rep until March 14. Tickets: 020 7304 4000; roh.org.uk