It was a night that everyone loves to remember, even if they weren’t there. February 20, 1946, the night that The Sleeping Beauty reopened the Royal Opera House. Everyone who was anyone was in the audience: King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, the Prime Minister Clement Attlee, a host of other VIPs and celebrities. On stage were Margot Fonteyn and the rest of Sadler’ s Wells Ballet, newly catapulted into the limelight as Britain’s national dance company.
The Opera House seats had to be dusted off for the occasion (they had spent the Second World War in storage, while the venue was converted into a dance hall), dinner jackets had to be rescued from mothballs. Backstage they were still rushing to finish the costumes even as the first notes of Tchaikovsky’s music sounded in the auditorium. But when the curtain rose on Oliver Messel’s lavishly designed Sleeping Beauty, the splendour of this fairytale enterprise cheered the postwar spirit like nothing else.
You could say that this was the night the Royal Ballet (as Sadler’s Wells Ballet was later christened) came of age. From then on, the company would be resident at the Royal Opera House; from that day forth The Sleeping Beauty would be its signature work.
If I had a time machine, February 20, 1946, would certainly be on my radar. So when the Royal Ballet announced that, as part of its 75th birthday celebrations, it was going to revisit the iconic Messel Beauty, my heart was thrilled. Now, at last, we would see what all the fuss was about.