The Royal Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty is one of the world’s most lavish – and challenging – productions. So what does it take to stage this showstopping Christmas spectacular? Hannah Betts is given an exclusive peek behind the scenes.
‘Argh, my toe,’ winces the Royal Ballet principal Lauren Cuthbertson, grasping her satin slipper. ‘I’m pirouetting on half a toenail.’ There’s a collective shudder around the rehearsal studio. And, then, she’s off again, spinning her way around the floor – head whipping, hairpins flying – beaming her rhapsodic Sleeping Beauty beam. At 35, after a week in bed with flu, Lauren is transformed into 16-year-old Princess Aurora, making her society debut. ‘You look as if you’re having a ball,’ roars her teacher. ‘Well, it is my birthday!’ she laughs, toenail forgotten.
The Sleeping Beauty (or simply Beauty, as it is known behind the scenes) holds a special place in the Royal Ballet’s repertoire. It was the first work the company performed at the Royal Opera House in 1946, celebrating both the end of World War II and their new home in London’s Covent Garden. Legendary English ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn danced the lead role of Princess Aurora.
Beauty is, as Lauren tells me, ‘the epitome of classical ballet. It’s pure joy to return to something like this: it feels as if you’re coming back to ballet, because it’s ballet in its truest form. People think of Swan Lake as being incredibly classical, but the swan – being part animal, part swan queen – is slightly more contemporary. There is nothing more classical than The Sleeping Beauty.’
And the prettier it is to watch, the harder you have to graft. ‘For classical ballet you have to strive,’ says Devon-born Lauren, who has danced Aurora since the age of 22 when she made her debut in the role. ‘Every day, you’re training, and in every rehearsal you have to get used to not feeling good enough and always wanting more, to push yourself further just to get to a place where you feel semi-ready.’
Princess Aurora is one of classical ballet’s most virtuoso roles; not least for the notoriously difficult ‘Rose Adagio’ sequence, in which – after shooting on stage like a cannon ball – the dancer must balance on one leg as she takes each of her four suitors’ hands in turn. This year, Lauren is one of nine principal dancers playing the part.
Beauty is also vast, one of the largest ballets in the company’s repertoire; over 50 dancers are required for each performance. The enormity of the production is reflected in the scale of its sets (there are four set changes per performance) and, of course, the costumes. Each dancer will have their own tailored costumes and may play a number of roles. If they are appearing in a part for the first time, they will have an outfit created entirely from scratch. Think ballet couture.
The costume department is bliss. Snow white tutus are hooped around poles so they remain pristine. Puffed-sleeved and dirndl-skirted dresses sit alongside ravishing brocades for the male courtiers. Gorgeous confections, yes, but they are built to last; between performances they are plumped and preened and checked for wear and tear. In front of a row of steamers hangs Lauren’s frock for the ‘Rose Adagio’. Up close, I confess to being a little disappointed: it’s Andrex pink with orange ribbon. Yet put it under lights and it’s heaven.
Backstage at the Royal Opera House is a crazed labyrinth: six floors of different coloured zones to accommodate 1,000 people primed to give it their all, whether on stage, backstage or front of house. Throughout, it is swelteringly hot, to keep the dancers’ muscles warm. It is also impossibly clean and neat – not a sequin out of place.
Over in the wig department, I do not spot a single stray strand. Instead, there is box upon box of human hair – ‘Italian brown’, ‘short weft curls’, ‘fine blonde’ – plus drawers of various shades (dancers bring in their own cut tresses). Wigs are washed, set, baked in an oven, dressed and sprayed with industrial quantities of Elnett hairspray to keep every lock in place.
The pointe-shoe room houses the most thrilling cornucopia, the scent of satin and leather heady in the air. Every performer boasts their own cubbyhole full of shiny new pumps. I spy the glittering scarlet pair worn by the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, and the royal blue slippers of its many-legged Caterpillar. However, mostly it’s a case of plush pink for the women and black for the men.
I try not to stare at these diminutive racehorses, as they stalk about in their many-layered mufti, or tiaras, tights and dressing gowns – tiny, perfect, young. The only stereotype they buck is the one that dancers do not eat. These most certainly do – not least to access all that energy – and their canteen offers rice, pasta, chips and cake, as well as judiciously placed protein pots, bowls of bananas and boiled eggs.
All 100 dancers meet Monday to Saturday at class; their daily warm-up begins at 10.30am. From there, they will be in rehearsal until 5.30pm on a performance day or 6.30pm on a non-performance day. On a show day, preparations will then be made for make-up, hair and costume (while fitting in eating, resting and going to the gym) before curtain-up at 7.30pm. And on some days there will be matinées too!
Lauren is currently rehearsing not only Beauty, but three other productions. She is impressively composed about her workload, although she does concede, ‘If you feel a niggle in some part of your body, Aurora is the worst thing to be doing. I’m jumping, jumping, jumping, and I know I’ll wake up a bit stiff. But you’re married to the ballet when you’re doing it.’
I know she isn’t allowed to have favourites – it would be akin to admitting to a favourite child – but would Aurora be among her most cherished roles? ‘Definitely,’ she enthuses. ‘Aurora’s entrance is the most exciting of all ballets. There’s such a build-up. The audience is on the edge of their seats. Her first steps are into her 16th birthday party. I may be 35, but it’s electrifying to enter the stage and bring that energy to the production. It does feel like the sweetest 16th ever.
‘It’s hard not to get carried away. This is why your training has to be so thorough, because I know the minute I’m on stage there is a cog in the back of my brain that’s controlling the technique, while I concentrate on the essence of the story and the magical kingdom we’re creating.’
Fresh from rehearsal – hair haloed about her shoulders, sliders on her feet – Lauren rolls her eyes at the notion that ballerinas live off ‘fairy dust’. Her food of choice while training is a good old cheese sandwich. She also favours flapjacks, medjool dates, coffee and energy bars, and has become proficient at the ‘nine-minute lie-down’.
Hard work aside, her secret weapon is scent and she is working with London-based perfume curator Anastasia Brozler to create an aroma to carry her through each act of Beauty. ‘Probably rose for the first act,’ she muses. ‘Then act two is the prince’s vision of Aurora, so she needs to be serene, dewy and beautiful. And then the third act is the wedding so something ceremonial, celebratory. Before I worked with a perfumer, I used to wear Vera Wang when I danced as Aurora, but that was ten years ago.’ Lauren may be older, but her Beauty will still shoot on stage forever young.
The Sleeping Beauty runs at the Royal Opera House until 16 January 2020 and will also be relayed live to cinemas across the UK. Visit roh.org.uk for more details