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Is this ballet for you?

Go if: For the past few years you have overdosed on too many Nutcrackers and would like to see something different. You are dreaming of a White Christmas, sleigh bells in the snow, etc.

Skip if: Cute and/or nostalgic Edwardian Christmases are not your thing.

Sarah Lamb, José Martin & Mara Galeazzi in Les Patineurs. Photo: Johan Persson /ROH ©

Background

British ballet owes a huge debt to Sir Frederick Ashton, one of its most important choreographers and a big advocate of classical tradition. Ashton was born in Ecuador in 1904 and grew up in Peru where his father was in the diplomatic service. He became spellbound by classical ballet after seeing Anna Pavlova on tour in 1917. Upon arriving in Britain he started training as a dancer but shortly thereafter, encouraged by Marie Rambert, he turned to choreography.

Despite his late start Ashton’s professional aspirations in dance led him to admire and embrace classical tradition in ballet. He once opined: “The idea so often expressed that classical technique is hampering to artistic expression is erroneous and misleading”. Upholding the Petipa heritage he developed his own style, which combined academically unorthodox movements with classical ballet, and created a vast repertoire for the budding British ballet company which would soon become The Royal Ballet.

Ashton was Balanchine‘s contemporary but while Mr. B – another classicist who admired the beauty of dance – opted for abstration and minimalism Ashton approached it from a different perspective. Rather than reduce ballet to bare essentials he tried to convey warm feelings and an idealised image of the world, often focusing on narrative. All of these qualities are evident in Les Patineurs, one of his earlier works.

The Ballet

In Les Patineurs we can see Ashton’s beautiful world at play: scenes commonly found in an ice-rink over Christmas season, with couples romantically skating hand in hand, the bravura teen dazzling the crowd with his daredevilish spins, beginners clinging onto whatever is in front of them to avoid the humiliation of falling on ice. All of these moments are wrapped up in gorgeous 1930’s scenery and Edwardian fur-trimmed outfits.

The inspiration for Les Patineurs came from composer Constant Lambert. Lambert admired Giacomo Meyerbeer‘s opera Le Prophète which featured a short comic relief sequence with dancers on roller skates. He reorchestrated the piece and showed it to Ashton who set to choreograph a new ballet which preserved the lighthearted nature of the original work.

Alexandra Ansanelli and Valeri Hristov in Les Patineurs. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

The result was a 27-minute long plotless yet accessible ballet, with choreography that makes the dancers look like they are ice skating and scenes familiar to anyone who has ever been to an ice rink. It is an ideal work for first timers and balletomanes alike, especially for those keen on observing early Ashton. The ballet demands a supple upper body to cope with the fluidity of movement combined with fast footwork for the lower body. The result should look easy and simple, even if the movement’s fundamentals are demanding, as in the duet for the two Red Girls.

Les Patineurs follows a classical structure of divertissements, virtuoso variation, a central pas de deux and ensemble pieces that form a complete whole. Each character has a specific role with various social interactions taking place at the ice rink, with an overall mood of sophistication, enchantment and wonder.

Around the World

Les Patineurs has been staged by many ballet companies and grew extremely popular in the US where it was performed by American Ballet Theatre and The Joffrey, both versions having been telecast in the 70’s. ABT’s production boasted designs by the great Cecil Beaton, with forest green instead of blue for the virtuoso soloist’s costume. More recently, it has been added to Sarasota Ballet’s repertoire.

Music

The music for Les Patineurs was arranged by Constant Lambert who orchestrated different selections from Meyerbeer’s Le Prophete together with the aria “Bel Cavalier” from L’Etoile du Nord.

Les Patineurs has been recorded by the National Philarmonic Orchestra, conducted by Richard Bonynge. The score is available through Amazon and tracklisting is as follows:

Entrée and Pas de Huit
Variation (blue boy/skater)
Pas de Deux (white couple/the lovers)
Ensemble
Pas de Trois
Pas de Patineuses
Ensemble
Galop Finale

Cindy Jourdain and Laura McCulloch in Les Patineurs. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Mini-Biography

Original Choreography: Sir Frederick Ashton
Music: Giacomo Meyerbeer (selections from the operas Le Prophete and L’Etoile du nord). Arranged and orchestrated by Constant Lambert.
Original Designs: William Chappell
Original Premiere: 16 February 1937. Vic-Wells Ballet, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London.
Original Cast: Mary Honer, Elizabeth Miller, Harold Turner, Margot Fonteyn, Robert Helpmann, Pamela May, June Brae.

Sources and Further Information

  1. Dancing Ashton by David Vaughan. Dance Magazine, July 2004 [link]
  2. ROH Entry for Les Patineurs, A Short ballet with music by Meyerbeer. [link]
  3. Frederick Ashton and His Ballets by David Vaughan. Ashton Archive, 2004. [link]
  4. A Spinning, Twisting Tribute to Ashton, With Skaters and Pigeons by Alistair Macaulay. Dance Review. New York Times, December, 2008. [link]
  5. Sarasota Ballet entry for Les Patineurs. [link]
  6. Ballet: A stylist Joffrey Patineurs by Anna Kisselgoff. Dance Review, New York Times, January, 1983. [link]
  7. Frederick Ashton by John Percival. ROH Programme Notes for Les Patineurs/Tales of Beatrix Potter, December 2007.

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This week we have double reason to party. While at Covent Garden the Royal Ballet returns home for the 2009/2010 season, over here at the Ballet Bag we  celebrate 6 months of online balletomania. To mark the occasion we have prepared a – non exhaustive – balletic timeline of sorts, to highlight some of our favorite posts over this period. We hope you enjoy!

Picture 18

Image Copyright belongs to respective owners. Source: various

1738 – Tsarina Anna Ioannovna inaugurates the Choreographic School of St. Petersburg, training children of her staff at the Winter Palace to form the first Russian ballet company. The Mariinsky Ballet, August 2009 [link]

1830 – August Bournonville returns to Denmark to join the Royal Danish Ballet as a soloist, having danced for the Paris Opera and studied with Auguste Vestris. Dear Mr. Fantasy, August 2009 [link]

1886 – The refurbished Mariinsky opens its doors and becomes the permanent home for both the Imperial opera and ballet companies. The Mariinsky Ballet, August 2009 [link]

1889 – Prince Rudolf, heir to the Austro-Hungarian crown, forges a double suicide pact with his mistress Baroness Mary Vetsera at the royal hunting lodge of Mayerling. Mayerling, June 2009 [link]

1905 – Enrico Cecchetti returns from Poland to St. Petersburg to establish a ballet school and work as Anna Pavlova’s exclusive coach. The Scientist, July 2009 [link]

1909 – The Ballets Russes stage Les Sylphides in Paris at the Theatre du Chatelet, with an original cast led by Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky and Alexandra Baldina. Les Sylphides, May 2009 [link]

1910 – Premiere of the Ballets Russes’s Firebird with Tamara Karsavina & Mikhail Fokine. The Firebird, May 2009 [link]

1916 – Agrippina Vaganova begins teaching at the Imperial Ballet School, training ballet legends in the making such as Galina Ulanova, Natalia Dudinskaya and Maya Plisetskaya. Be True to Your School, May 2009 [link]

1934 – George Balanchine opens the School of American Ballet. Long Tall Sally, May 2009 [link]

1957 – Composer Hanz Werner Henze finishes work on the difficult score for Frederick Ashton’s water themed ballet Ondine. Ondine, May 2009 [link]

1976 – NYCB premieres Jewels at the New York State Theatre. Jewels, May 2009 [link]

1978 – Kenneth MacMillan choreographs Mayerling for the Royal Ballet. David Wall creates the character of Crown Prince Rudolph. Mayerling, June 2009 [link]

1979 – Bournonville’s sequence of enchaînements are published in printed format. Dear Mr. Fantasy, August 2009 [link]

1980 – Kim Brandstrup moves to London to study at the London School of Contemporary Dance with Nina Fonaroff. Life in Technicolor, September 2009 [link]

1992 – The Kirov ballet regains its former Imperial name thus becoming The Mariinsky ballet. The Mariinsky Ballet, August 2009 [link]

1999 – Sergey Vikharev reconstructs the Mariinsky’s original 1890 Petipa version of The Sleeping Beauty. The Sleeping Beauty, September 2009 [link]

2006 – Royal Ballet also goes back to its original Sleeping Beauty, restaging the 1946 production by Ninette de Valois after Nicholas Sergeyev to commemorate the company’s 75th anniversary. The Sleeping Beauty, September 2009 [link]

2008/2009 – Ballet companies boost investment in social media. The  Mariinsky launches an all English language multi platform initiative, NYCB joins Twitter, ABT has over 24,000 Facebook fans and the Royal Opera House produces the Twitter Opera. Virtually There, July 2009 [link]

2009 – Veronika Part, ABT’s newest Principal dancer appears in a US talk show and is interviewed by David Letterman, a rare occurrence in the ballet world. Beautiful Woman, July 2009 [link]

2009 – 23 year old Royal Ballet dancer Steven McRae is promoted to Principal. A Fiery Spirit, July 2009 [link]

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Is this ballet for you?

Go If: You love classical ballet complete with fairy tale theme, tiaras, tutus, lavish décors and variations for almost every single dancer featuring every single ballet step. The Sleeping Beauty is also ideal for: classical music fans who want to live Tchaikovsky’s vision of the story, young budding ballerinas and danseurs looking for inspiration and first timers, who will be able to easily follow the story.

Skip If: You cannot bear choreographic “filler”, endless variations and character dances (particularly in the prologue and act 3), long mime sequences (as in the Royal Ballet’s version), happy ever after fairy-tales or overly long ballets – think 3 hours including intervals.

Dream Cast

Aurora: There is currently no better Aurora in our books than Alina Cojocaru.

Prince Désiré/Florimund: Beauty is more centered on the ballerina so the Prince’s role is secondary. However, the male solos are a perfect showcase for  danseur nobles such as Mariinsky’s Igor Kolb, ABT’s Marcelo Gomes, NYCB’s Robbie Fairchild and Roberto Bolle. At the Royal Ballet we think rising star Sergei Polunin (who is tackling the role for the first time this season) and Rupert Pennefather are very princely.

Lilac Fairy: Ulyana Lopatkina, Veronika Part and Marianela Nuñez.

Alina Cojocaru as Aurora in Mariinky's 1890 Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Natasha Razina ©. Source: Ballet-dance.com

Alina Cojocaru as Aurora in Mariinsky's 1890 Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Natasha Razina ©. Source: Ballet-dance.com

Background

In 1888 Ivan Vsevolozhsky, Director of the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg, had the idea of adapting Charles Perrault‘s tale of The Sleeping Beauty into a ballet and invited Tchaikovsky to compose the music. It was a bold move at a time when fairy-tale based ballets were in low public demand and largely viewed as theatrical gimmicks. Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake (as choreographed by Wenzel Reisinger/Joseph Hansen) had been coldly received and Petipa‘s ballets were not faring well. However visionary Vsevolozhsky, a diplomat who had also served as librettist and costume designer, seeing the potential for Petipa and the talents of the Imperial Theatre,  jumped at the chance to develop a lavish production of this well loved story in the style of those staged in the court of Louis XIV.

Tchaikovsky didn’t hesitate in undertaking the commission. Immediately taking instructions from Petipa as to the particular requirements (e.g. bar lengths, type of music, character leitmotifs, etc.), he worked fast and it is thought that he completed the overture, prologue and outlines of acts I and II in less than three weeks. Tchaikovsky finished the ballet score at the end of May 1889, having spent a total of 40 days on it. In a letter to one of his benefactors he wrote: “The subject is so poetic, so inspirational to composition, that I am captivated by it”.

Rehearsals began in August of that same year. The premiere, originally scheduled to take place that December, kept being pushed forward until the ballet was finally staged on 15th of January 1890. By then the Tsar, who had been invited to the dress rehearsal, had already given it his verdict, laconically telling a puzzled Tchaikovsky that the music was “very nice”.

Vision Scene in Mariinskys The Sleeping Beauty. Source: Mariinsky.ru Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Vision Scene in Mariinsky's The Sleeping Beauty. Source: Mariinsky.ru Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Mixed reviews for the splendid January 15th premiere showed that the audiences had been captivated mostly by the beauty of the music, even if it was constantly referred to as “symphonic”. The libretto was seen as simplistic and juvenile, designs too luxurious (the ballet consumed a quarter of the theatre’s annual budget). Later however, the ballet would captivate the hearts and imagination of a younger generation of enthusiasts. Referred to as the Neva Pickwickians”, personalities such as George Balanchine, Alexandre Benois, Léon Bakst, Sergei Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky and Anna Pavlova, were greatly impressed by the artistic qualities of the production, giving it a boost which helped The Sleeping Beauty become the most performed ballet in the Mariinsky’s history.

This historical 1890 production was revived in 1999, thanks to its reconstruction by Sergey Vikharev who worked with the original notations by Petipa’s assistant Nicholas Sergeyev, as well as other productions which borrowed from it (Perm Ballet’s 1922 production by Fyodor Lopukhov, the Bolshoi‘s by Grigorovich, the Mussorgsky Theatre of Opera and Ballet’s and the Royal Ballet‘s by Sergeyev himself), where necessary filling in the gaps with the Kirov’s 1952 version – the Soviet Beauty – as staged by another Sergeyev: Konstantin Sergeyev.

The Sleeping Beauty was performed outside Russia for the first time in 1896 in Milan. While In St. Petersburg, with the revolution under way, the production went into decline, it flourished in the West thanks to Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. Their 1921 staging in London of The Sleeping Princess, in a new full-length version (they also had a 45-min shortened version, Aurora’s Wedding) with designs by Léon Bakst, new orchestrations by Stravinsky and revised choreography by Nijinska had a record 105 consecutive performances and was considered a success even though it had dire economic consequences for the company.

Beauty and the Royal Ballet

The Sleeping Beauty has a special place in the Royal Ballet’s repertoire. It was originally staged for it in 1939 by Nicholas Sergeyev who had fled the Russian revolution with the original Mariinsky notations in his suitcase, with nineteen year old Margot Fonteyn in the role of Aurora. This was also the “statement ballet” chosen by Ninette de Valois to commemorate the end of WWII, as well as her budding ballet company’s new home at the Royal Opera House. Oliver Messel was brought in for the designs and Margot Fonteyn and Robert Helpmann danced the leads Aurora and Prince Florimund/Carabosse. The ballet had its premiere on February 20, of 1946 and became a symbol of the company triumphing against adversity not only at home but on tour in the US, with Fonteyn’s Aurora acclaimed by New York audiences.

Margot Fonteyn as Aurora. Source: Dance Works Online via My Hero.com. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Margot Fonteyn as Aurora. Source: Dance Works Online via My Hero.com. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

The 1946 production was revived by the Royal Ballet in 2006, to celebrate its 75th anniversary and remains in repertoire as their current production. It is also available on DVD.

The Story

Petipa and Vsevolozhsky based their ballet’s libretto on the original fairy tale by Charles Perrault later popularised by the Brothers Grimm. Since the libretto’s priority is to blend the story with the dancing, there are modifications from the source text and, evidently, slight changes from one company’s version to the next.

Prologue: The Christening

The curtains open to reveal the Master of Ceremonies Cattalabutte busy with the final preparations ordered by King Florestan XXIV to celebrate the christening of  his daughter Aurora. He goes through the guest list to make sure he has not forgotten to invite anyone, not least all the fairy godmothers: the Lilac Fairy and

Candide, Coulante-Fleur-de-Farine, Miettes-qui-Tombent, Canari-qui-Chante, Violente or;

Tender Fairy, Carefree Fairy, Generous Fairy, Playful Fairy, Brave Fairy or;

as in the Royal Ballet’s version

Fairy of the Crystal Fountain, Fairy of the Enchanted Garden, Fairy of the Woodland Glade, Fairy of the Song Bird, Fairy of the Golden Vine

who soon arrive to bestow on the Princess gifts and virtues of, respectively, purity, beauty, generosity, musicality and vitality, each dancing a solo representing her trademark virtue. Before the Lilac Fairy has the chance to present her gift (wisdom) she is interrupted by the arrival of Carabosse, the wicked Fairy, furious with the King and Queen for not having been invited. The King calls on Cattalabutte to investigate and his Master of Ceremonies admits Carabosse had been omitted from the guest list. She grabs Cattalabutte and rips off his wig. Ignoring the fairy godmothers’s pleas and ridiculing them, she proceeds to place a curse on the princess, who will grow up to be very beautiful but ultimately prick her finger on a spindle and die on her sixteen birthday. As the court panics the Lilac Fairy, who was yet to give her gift, promises that if Carabosse’s curse ever materializes, then Aurora will not die, but fall into deep sleep for 100 years, awakening once she is found by a Prince from a faraway land who shall give her true love’s kiss.

Royal Ballets Genesia Rosato as Carabosse Source: Opusarte. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

The Royal Ballet's Genesia Rosato as Carabosse Source: Opusarte. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Act I: The Spell

It is the eve of Princess Aurora‘s sixteenth birthday and the whole kingdom is celebrating. While villagers dance with flower garlands a small group of women is seen knitting, a forbidden activity which carries a death penalty since the King has banned all sewing objects from his kingdom. Cattalabutte reports them to the King, who decrees that the women should be hanged, but the Queen intervenes and pleads for mercy. Since it is his daughter’s birthday he reconsiders and the festivities resume.

Four princes arrive from far away lands (they are referred to as the French, Spanish, Indian and Russian princes) to meet the princess and offer her gifts of exquisite roses. Aurora’s friends enter and just after that Cattalabutte annouces the Princess’s arrival. As the music becomes as fast as heatbeats, Aurora bursts onto stage dancing quick jumpy steps which convey her youthful innocence. The King and Queen greet her asking her to dance with the princes as she is now old enough to marry. She receives them charmingly and dances what is called the Rose Adagio, one of the most testing pieces for a classical ballerina as she is required to do multiple balances on pointe center stage whilst being courted by each prince, making each of them completely taken with her beauty.

After this technical tour de force, Aurora returns to dance a solo for the princes, which she does in a part coquettish, part bashful way, like a typical teenager. Just then an old lady appears and presents her with a spindle, which she grabs  with curiosity since she had never seen one. She dances with it, while her mother and father watch with a mixture of apprehension and terror as Aurora pricks her finger and collapses. The old lady reveals herself as Carabosse, laughing triumphantly and vanishing before the Princes can fight her. The Lilac Fairy then appears to remind everyone that the Princess will not die. She puts the entire kingdom to sleep, to awaken only once Aurora‘s curse is broken.

Carabosse's curse as depicted in The Royal Ballet's Sleeping Beauty. Photo:V&A Images © Source: V&A Collections

Aurora falling under Carabosse's spell in The Royal Ballet's Sleeping Beauty. Photo:V&A Images © Source: V&A Collections

Act II: The Vision

One hundred years have passed and Prince Désiré/Florimund is hunting with friends. They try to entertain him with games and dances but he does not seem interested. As his party departs in pursuit of a stag, he lingers behind alone in the forest. The Lilac Fairy appears and shows him a vision of Princess Aurora, and as he dances with this vision he falls in love. He pleads to be brought to the Princess, and the Lilac Fairy takes him to a castle hidden beneath layers of ivy. At the gates they encounter evil Carabosse who tries to prevent the Prince from entering, but the Lilac Fairy repels her and the Prince finally awakens Aurora with a kiss. Désire/Florimund declares his love for her and Aurora agrees to marry him.

Marianela Nuñez as the Lilac Fairy. Source: OpusArte. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Marianela Nuñez as the Lilac Fairy. Source: OpusArte. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Act III: The Wedding

Festivities are held to celebrate the nuptials of Princess Aurora and Prince Désiré/Florimund. Various fairy tale characters join the festivities including Puss in Boots and the White Cat, the Bluebird and Princess Florine, Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf among others, the highlight here being the Bluebird Pas de Deux, in which the male soloist has to perform a fiendish diagonal of Brisés volés mirroring a bird in flight. The beautiful grand wedding Pas de Deux ensues, the choreography showing us a more mature Aurora – more poised and confident than the 16 year old from Act I – and her elegant, danseur noble, prince. They are joined by their guests in a mazurka and the ballet ends with the The Lilac Fairy blessing the newly wedded couple.

The Music

Tchaikovksy’s score lasts 3 hours so it is usually cut for the ballet. There are two main leitmotifs, one for Carabosse (the angry sounding first part of the overture) and other for the Lilac Fairy (the calming second part) and both often develop from one another. This review of ABT’s Sleeping Beauty by NY Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay contains some great insights into the musical themes set by Tchaikovsky.

An essential Sleeping Beauty playlist for your ipod should include the below tracks, which are listed as in the original 1890 version. Since track names in the various commercial CD releases might vary (ie. “Grand pas de action: Grand adage à la rose, No 8.” might become “Track 9. Act 1: The Spell. No. 8. Pas d’action”), we have also added the originally corresponding numbers, thus:

Prologue: Overture/Intro (No. 1)
Prologue: Variation La Fée des Lilas–voluptueuse (From the Pas de Six) (No. 3, Variation VI)
Act I Grande Valse Villageoise (The Garland Waltz, No. 6)
Act I Pas d’action: Grand adage à la rose (Rose Adagio No.8)
Act I Scène et Finale (No. 9)
Act II Scène de la chasse royale (No. 10)
Act II Panorama (No. 17)
Act II Scène du Chateau de sommeil (N0. 19)
Act II Scène et Finale. Le réveil d’Aurore (No. 20)
Act III Marche (No. 21)
Act III Polonaise Dansée (No. 22)
Act III Pas de caractère Le Chat Botté et la Chatte Blanche (No. 24)
Act III Pas de deux de l’Oiseau Bleu et la Princesse Florine (No. 25)
Act III Variation de la Princesse Florine (No. 25)
Act III Variation de l’Oiseau Bleu (No. 25)
Act III Pas De Deux. Aurore et Désiré (No. 28)
Act III Coda Générale (No. 30)
Act III Apothéose (No. 30)

Mini-Biography

Original Choreography: Marius Petipa
Music: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Original Design: Henrich Levogt (Prologue), Ivan Andreyev (Act 1), Mikhail Bocharov (Acts 1 & 2), Matvey Shishkov (Act 3) with costumes by Ivan Vsevolozhky
Original Cast: Carlotta Brianza as Aurora, Pavel Gerdt as Prince Désiré, Marie Petipa as the Lilac Fairy, Enrico Cecchetti as the Bluebird and Varvara Nikitina as Princess Florine.
Premiere: St. Petersburg, Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, 15 Jan 1890.

For the Royal Ballet’s current production (the 2006 revival of 1946 production by Ninette de Valois)

Production Credits: Monica Mason and Christopher Newton after Ninette de Valois and Nicholas Sergeyev with designs by Oliver Messel and Peter Farmer

Choreography: Marius Petipa, with additional choreography by Sir Frederick Ashton (Act II, Aurora’s Variation and Prince’s Variation and Act III: Florestan and his sisters after Petipa), Anthony Dowell (Prologue: Carabosse and Rats and Act III Polonaise and Mazurka assisted by Christopher Carr) and Christopher Wheeldon (Act I: Garland Dance).

Sources and Further Information

  1. Wikipedia Entry for Sleeping Beauty [link]
  2. BalletMet Sleeping Beauty Notes by Gerald Charles [link]
  3. NYCB Sleeping Beauty Notes [link]
  4. Performance Notes and Programme for The Royal Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty (2008) including The Sleeping Beauty by Clement Crisp, A Cinderella Story for a Sleeping Princess by Tim Scholl and The Good, the Bad and the Symphonic by John Warrack.
  5. For Ballet Lovers Only feature on the Reconstructed Beauty by Doug Fullington [link]
  6. The Sleeping Beauty (The Royal Ballet) DVD. Recorded Performance from 2006, featuring Alina Cojocaru as Aurora and Federico Bonelli as Prince Florimund. BBC/Opus Arte, 2008 [link]
  7. The Magic of Sleeping Beauty. Royal Opera House Podcast, presented by Deborah Bull. 2007 [link]
  8. Wake up Princess, the Movies are Calling. Dance review by Alastair Macaulay for the NY Times [link]
  9. CD: Tchaikovsky: The Sleeping Beauty London Symphony Orchestra directed by André Previn, 2004. EMI Classics. [link]

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We now turn to one of ballet history’s most successful training methods: Cecchetti, a complete and structured system for dancers, which sets a strict, rigid hierarchical regime and which is still an ongoing influence for virtually every major ballet school in the world. Its creator, Enrico Cecchetti (1850-1928), was an Italian virtuoso dancer who would in time become a teacher at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg and train ballet legends such as Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, Tamara Karsavina, Alicia Markova, Léonide Massine and Royal Ballet founder, Ninette de Valois.

Enrico Cecchetti. Source: Wikipedia ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Enrico Cecchetti. Source: Wikipedia ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Cecchetti came from a dancing family, his father having taught him the basics of ballet but later sending him to train with a string of dance luminaries. First, Giovanni Lepri, an accomplished pupil of the great Carlo Blasis of  the “Traité élémentaire, théorique et pratique de l’art de la danse” (1820), one of the foremost treaties of classical ballet techniques of that era,  then with Cesare Coppini at La Scala and Filippo Taglioni. All this practical knowledge served as a background for Cechetti’s own ideas on ballet which he was to develop later as an immigrant in Russia.

Cecchetti was already a virtuoso performer when he arrived in St. Petersburg, astonishing audiences with his great jumps and multiple pirouettes (though he could only turn in one direction) and excelling in mime. Such abilities, best displayed when he created the roles of Bluebird and Carabosse in Petipa‘s The Sleeping Beauty, not only secured him a job as Premieur Danseur with the Mariinsky Ballet but also a 15 year long tenure as Ballet Master of  the Imperial Ballet School, where he taught various notable dancers of the era. After teaching in Poland for 3 years he returned to St. Petersburg, establishing a school in 1905 and working as Anna Pavlova’s exclusive coach until 1909. He went on to contribute to modern classical ballet’s birth upon joining  Diaghilev‘s Ballets Russes as ballet master and mime artist. Later years saw Cecchetti teaching at his own dance school in London (1918) and subsequently returning to his native Italy to teach at La Scala (1923), a position he would hold until his death in 1928.

Cecchetti’s method, developed by mixing his own experiences as a dancer and teacher with Carlo Blasis’s heritage, is a strict form of training. Specific exercises are prescribed for every day of the week and there’s an overall objective of making dancers internalise the principles of ballet and have an innate feeling for graceful lines. This very scientific method leaves no room for improvisation: it dictates that steps be introduced in planned sequences, that all parts of the body be worked on evenly. Daily class consists of barre work, which is then repeated at the centre, followed by adagio and allegro sequences. Only at the end of class may the teacher introduce and incorporate certain new steps to develop the student’s ability to assimilate quickly.  Cecchetti strives for pure and clean classical lines, so dancers can respond to the demands of different styles and choreographers.

Enrico Cecchetti teaches students. Source: The Cecchetti Society of SA ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Enrico Cecchetti teaches students. Source: The Cecchetti Society of SA ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

The method has its own vocabulary, including over 40 set adages and 8 ports de bras, all developed by Cecchetti. Quality rather than quantity is also emphasized (e.g. do the exercise correctly once rather than many times in a sloppy way).

In 1922, assisted by Cecchetti protegés (Stanislas Idzikowski, Margaret Craske and Derra de Moroda), Cyril W. Beaumont collected and codified the basics of Cecchetti’s technique in what became the official syllabus (The Cecchetti Method of Classical Ballet). Cecchetti also allowed Beaumont, a close friend, to establish the Cecchetti Society for the continuity of his principles and preservation of standards and theoretical knowledge. Along with leading methods such as Vaganova, Balanchine, RAD, Bournonville & the French school, Cecchetti  continues to train future generations of dancers.

With branches in many parts of the world, the Society promotes the method through a series of graded levels and examinations with specific goals for students to work towards. It originally consisted of three levels (nowadays grades 5, 6 and Intermediate Foundation), but now comprises six grade levels. The major grades are Intermediate Foundation, Intermediate, Advanced 1 and 2. In order to become a ballet teacher, candidates must pass the “Associate examination” after Advanced 1.

In the UK, the Cecchetti Society has been absorbed by the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD), even though its syllabus, the Imperial Classical Ballet Syllabus, is still kept separately from ISTD’s own.

Maestro Cecchetti left a great imprint on the English School. The important aspects of his teaching will remain part of the academic tradition of our English Ballet. (Ninette de Valois)

If I had my way, I would always insist that all dancers should daily do the wonderful Cecchetti ports de bras. It inculcates a wonderful feeling for line and correct positioning and the use of head movement and épaulement which – if properly absorbed – will be of incalculable use throughout a dancer’s career. (Frederick Ashton)

Sources and Further Information:

  1. Wikipedia Entry for Enrico Cecchetti
  2. Wikipedia Entry for the Cecchetti Method
  3. The Cecchetti Council of America [link]
  4. The Cecchetti Society of Canada [link]
  5. Cecchetti Ballet Australia [link]
  6. ISTD Cecchetti Ballet Faculty [link]
  7. The Cecchetti Method of Classical Ballet: Theory and Technique by Cyril W. Beaumont, Stanislas Idzikowski. Dover Publications (2003). ISBN-10: 0486431770, ISBN-13: 978-0486431772
  8. Using Class Notes to Document Advances in Late-Nineteenth-Century Ballet Technique by Norma-Sue Fisher-Stitt. International Association of Libraries and Museums of the Performing Arts. [link]
  9. Andros on Ballet. An overview of Cecchetti classical ballet vocabulary.

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Many ballet goers like to do their research before purchasing a ticket or attending a performance. Of course there are those who will jump into anything that is called ballet and then sit bemused through the first act before finally deciding to study the programme in the first interval. But ideally you would do some preparatory reading of what you are about to see (and hear) at home to better understand and enjoy it.

The beauty of internet is that nowadays one can find essentially everything  about a particular ballet (notes on choreography, music, history, performers, etc) and even bits of video, all just by searching on Google. We would like to build our own set of fact cards on this site and make life easier for people who are just approaching ballet, so taking a cue from the Royal Ballet’s current triple bill commemorating Diaghilev and the 100th anniversary of Ballets Russes‘s first Parisian season, we will start with an abstract ballet by Mikhail Fokine:

Les Sylphides

Is this ballet for you?

Go if: You are fond of white romantic vaporous tutus waltzing on the stage. Adagio (ie. slow) dancing makes you happy.

Skip if: You prefer your ballets full-length and plot driven, with loads of pyrotechnics on the side.

 

ABT in Les Sylphides. Photo Rosalie O'Connor ©. Picture Source: [Artsjournal.com]

ABT in Les Sylphides by Rosalie O'Connor ©. Picture Source: Artsjournal.com

Themes:

Les Sylphides is a short (one act) plotless Romantic ballet, or as some would describe it, a ballet of mood, originally choreographed by Mikhail Fokine to music by Chopin. Although it is framed rather like the “divertissements in the forest” that take place in Act 2 of the full length Romantic ballet “La Sylphide”, Les Sylphides has nothing to do with and should not be confused with  the former (different music, choreographer, motifs and themes).

Perhaps because of the potential for confusion with La Sylphide some ballet companies still refer to Fokine’s work by its original title: Chopiniana or Reverie Romantique: Ballet sur la musique de Chopin, as performed at the Mariinsky Theatre in 1908. However named, the version danced nowadays is the one staged for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, premiered in Paris at the Theatre du Chatelet, the 2nd of June of 1909, with an original cast led by Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky and Alexandra Baldina.

The ballet’s theme is that of a young man walking at night and encountering a group of white sylphs (slender young women that are spirits of the air. The name Sylph is combined from the latin sylvestris=of the woods and nympha=nymph) dancing in the moonlight. The man joins in and dances with the sylphs. Some productions characterized this man as “a poet dreaming about his inspirations” (in many programmes the male role would be called poet) but this is really a ballet about the music rather than its characters and as the Royal Ballet ‘s programme notes, each of the female dancers is named after their own movements (Valse, Mazurka, Prelude). Given the romantic atmosphere of this piece, the ballet is very approachable and a staple in the repertory of nearly every major company in the world. Women in white romantic tutus (ie. the long ones) are always evocative and who doesn’t like to spend half an hour looking at dreamy apparitions on stage?

Music:

To make an Ipod or Spotify playlist for Les Sylphides (always a good idea to try the music on before you go!) you should look for the following Chopin tracks – but note that in live performance they will have been orchestrated (see mini biography below):

1. Prelude in A (Op. 28, no 7),
2. Nocturne in A flat major (Op. 32, no. 2),
3. Valse in G Flat major (Op. 70, no. 1),
4. Mazurka in D major (Op. 33, no. 2),
5. Mazurka in C major (Op. 67, no. 3),
6. Valse in C sharp minor (Op. 64, no. 2),
7. Valse in E flat major (Op. 18, no. 1)

Les Sylphides is part of the Royal Ballet’s triple bill dedicated to Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which runs from 4 May – 30 May. With Yuhui Choe, Lauren Cuthberson, Laura Morera, Tamara Rojo, Johan Kobborg and David Makhateli.

Mini Biography:

Choreography: Mikhail Fokine
Music: Frederic Chopin
Original Orchestration: Alexander Glazunov (Roy Douglas in the current Royal Ballet production)
Original Design: Alexandre Benois 
Original Cast: Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky and Alexandra Baldina
Premiere: 2 June 1909

Sources and Further Information

  1. Wikipedia entry for Les Sylphides. 
  2. ABT’s notes on Les Sylphides.
  3. Australia Dancing’s entry and research materials.
  4. Monica Mason and artists of the Royal Ballet talking about the triple bill dedicated to the Ballets Russes, including Les Sylphides [Link]

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