Sleeping Beauty

English Youth Ballet give 100 Northern Irish dancers the experience of a lifetime

Anyone who loves ballet will have a soft spot for Sleeping Beauty. Short on plot – baby cursed by wicked aunt grows up, pricks her finger, falls asleep, is wakened 100 years later by handsome prince – the ballet is a marvellous excuse for a great deal of dancing to exquisite music by master Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

As such, it is a perfect piece for a company like English Youth Ballet, whose goal it is to put as many dancers onstage as humanly possible. EYB was founded in 1998 as a means of giving young dancers outside of London a chance to perform in full-length classical ballet in a professional setting.

During the course of an 11-day residency in Belfast, 100 local dancers, who auditioned last November for a chance to be in the cast, take ballet class and rehearse with the company, the core of which is seven professional dancers. It is EYB’s first ever visit to Northern Ireland. I very much hope it will not be their last.

There is an audience for dance in Northern Ireland, as evidenced by good attendance in the Grand Opera House and other venues for dance productions of all kinds. What may be less apparent, at times, is the fact that there are dancers here too. Lots of them, in fact, students of dance at all ages and stages of their training.

How appropriate then, for them to have a chance to perform in the Grand Opera House in a production that showcases the essential elements of full-blown classical ballet – the sets, the costumes and the choreography, upon which this most graceful and gruelling art is built.

The principal roles of the ballet – Princess Aurora, her nurse, her parents, Aunt Lilac, Aunt Carabosse and the Prince – ae taken by professional dancers, as well as a few other key figures including the Bluebird, Lady Bluebird and Princess Florine. The rest of the piece is populated by the dance students, who become part of the company for three Belfast performances.

Aged from eight to 18, they are cast as guests, relatives, attendants, friends, monsters, kittens and a number of other animated elements of the story. Each character group is costumed appropriately, every scene revealing more tulle, sequins, sparkle and frills than the last. For sheer spectacle, this Sleeping Beauty is heart-stoppingly beautiful to look at.

Equally impressive is the seemingly effortless manner in which the various groups and individual dancers move on and off the stage. One can only imagine the organised chaos backstage as the 100-strong corps of dancers, correctly costumed and in the right order, make their entrances and exits.

Inevitably, the youngest, smallest dancers tend to make the most immediate impression. One group of small ‘monsters’ (looking suspiciously like Nutcracker mice) are wonderfully rhythmic and diminuatively demonic, with their splayed fingers and acrobatic leaping. Likewise, a group of kittens in Act Three are quintessentially cat-like and imperious, preening and sashaying their way across the stage.

There are many impressive dancers among the older students too, with a fair number en pointe, offering good unison movement in the corps and some impressive solo work as well. Successful ballet technique is as much about the arms, hands and head as it is about the toes, feet and legs. When both come together, you catch a glimpse of future promise in present skill.

There is also terrific stillness and attention among the dancers, who at times need to simply be on stage as guests or friends, part of a human backdrop to the main action. The art of being motionless is also as much a part of ballet as the exquisite movement we associate with it.

All in all, this is an impressive production admirably conceived and skillfully realised. EYB came to Northern Ireland and give to our young dancers an unforgettable experience, and it was nothing short of a privilege to see the result of their work.