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  • From the Archives: The Royal Ballet’s first performance of The Sleeping Beauty in 1946

From the Archives: The Royal Ballet’s first performance of The Sleeping Beauty in 1946

The Royal Ballet's classic production is 70 years old this year.

By Paris Hart (Former ROH Collections Assistant)

18 February 2016 at 1.00pm | 6 Comments

London in 1946 was a city very much still reeling from World War II. The impact of the Blitz bombing was a ubiquitous visible reminder, while rationing continued to take its hold on everyday life. An odd time, one might think, to stage a lavish production of The Sleeping Beauty; but 70 years ago, on 20 February 1946, the Sadler’s Wells Ballet did just that. The Royal Opera House was reclaimed from its wartime stint as a Mecca dance hall and became the new home of the company that would become The Royal Ballet – marking the start of a new era of ballet in London.

It was a momentous occasion. Margot Fonteyn danced Princess Aurora, with Robert Helpmann as both Prince Florimund and Carabosse, and the special gala performance was attended by the Royal family. The production, designed by Oliver Messel and produced by Ninette de Valois, had come to fruition under difficult circumstances: clothing coupons had to be used to purchase fabric, gloves and shoes, while the sets consisted of cheap canvas and paint. Nevertheless, The Sleeping Beauty was an immediate and resounding success, which would continue to grace the Covent Garden stage for a further twenty years. Such was the production’s iconic status that it was revived in 2006, enthralling new generations of audiences.

ROH Collections is very lucky to have some wonderful images of that first performance of The Sleeping Beauty, as part of the Frank Sharman Photographic Collection. This Collection contains prints, colour transparencies and negatives of English and international ballet companies performing in London in the 1940s and 50s, taken by the photographer Frank Sharman. Colour images from this era are a rarity but Sharman’s, taken on Kodachrome film, have retained their colour remarkably well. Sharman photographed from the balconies or stalls during performances, fulfilling an increasing demand for ballet ‘action’ shots – while also adding in a few of the gala audience itself.

Whether Sharman was a professional or aspiring photographer is not known. He was a member of the Royal Photographic Society, whose ballet photographs featured in publications such as the Dancing Times; but he later went on to work as a British agent in a German paper mill. His Collection was bequeathed to ROH Collections by family members in honour of Frank Sharman’s widow, Ethel. It contains images from more than forty productions – but undoubtedly Sharman’s Sleeping Beauty images are the true pinnacle of the Collection. They offer a fascinating glimpse into De Valois and Messel’s vibrant production, and the powerful enchantment it must have held for its war-weary audience.

Find out more about ROH Collections.

The Sleeping Beauty runs 21 December – 14 March 2016. Tickets are still available.

This article has 6 comments

  1. Joanne Simmons responded on 21 February 2016 at 9:38pm Reply

    Wonderful nostalgic photos of a long-gone era at the ROH - but it's also inspiring to see today's Royal Ballet artistes carrying on the traditions of classical ballet at the ROH too!

  2. Karen Abel responded on 23 February 2016 at 2:28am Reply

    I really hope that the sleeping beauty is part of next seasons repertoire it will go with this exhibition perfectly

  3. Sharon Keogh responded on 18 April 2016 at 6:24pm Reply

    I have always loved the RB Sleeping Beauty, obviously the casting of Aurora is what makes or breaks the performance. I hope that some of the young soloists -Choe, Hayward, Maguire, Naghdi, Stix-Brunell , - are given an opportunity in this role. For me no one has ever danced with such clarity of movement and believable expression as Viviana Durante. I was therefore very happy to hear that she will be working with the RB next season. An artist of her caliber should be cherished within the RB - as is the wonderful Lesley Collier.

  4. It's important to show that a ballet company grows from its origins, and that continuity of training, style and tradition are vital to survival.

    • alex responded on 4 August 2016 at 5:13pm

      Continuity and preservation of The Royal Ballet's unique style - its identity,- is indeed of utmost importance, and not only for its long term survival. The fact that Yasmine Naghdi and Francesca Hayward have been chosen as next Season's two new Aurora's is most interesting and revealing.

  5. richard prentice responded on 1 April 2018 at 6:51am Reply

    i saw this in feb 1952. I am certain that when aurora falls asleep vines covered the palace this was not so in the recent revival. has my memory failed or did it happen?

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