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Is this ballet for you?

Go If: You can’t resist a tragic love story. New Moon is your favorite book of the entire Twilight Saga and you can quote a certain passage from Act II, Scene VI of Shakespeare’s play by heart (don’t worry we won’t tell anyone). You’ve never been to the ballet and want to start with a tale that’s easy to follow in dance form.

Avoid If: Get thee gone, thou artless idle-headed pignut! (Ok, so you’re not a fan of The Bard)

Dream Casts

We asked our twitter followers and they said:

Juliet – Gelsey Kirkland, Yevgenia Obraztsova, Maria Kochetkova, Miriam Ould-Braham, Silvia Azzoni, Julie Kent, Alessandra Ferri, Alina Cojocaru

Romeo – Anthony Dowell, Vladimir Shklyarov, Igor Kolb, Jason Reilly, Friedemann Vogel, Angel Corella, Robert Fairchild, Steven McRae

Background

The Leonid Lavrovsky version

The idea for Romeo and Juliet as ballet came originally from Sergei Radlov, the Artistic Director of the Kirov (now the Mariinsky) around 1934. He developed the scenario together with theatre critic Adrian Piotrovsky and commissioned the music from one of his favorite Chess partners: Sergei Prokofiev who had never before composed for a full-length ballet.

Prokofiev finished the score on September, 1935 but the production was stalled when the communist regime demanded it be given a happy ending. Having shaped his score to match Radlov’s interpretation of the Shakespearean play Prokofiev was unhappy with this imposition.

Mariinsky's Vladimir Shklyarov and Yevgenia Obraztsova in Lavrovsky's Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Natalia Razina / Mariinsky Theatre ©

Further political problems saw the project shelved and transferred to the Bolshoi where it was deemed unsuitable. The ballet was eventually salvaged by the Kirov and on January 11, 1940 Romeo and Juliet finally received its premiere, with choreography by Artistic Director Leonid Lavrovsky. Legendary Galina Ulanova was the original Juliet and Konstantin Sergeyev her Romeo. The ballet was hailed a success but it only became a phenomenon six years later when it was staged in The Bolshoi Theatre (December 28, 1946), resulting in Lavrovsky’s appointment as Artistic Director of the Bolshoi.

The Bolshoi toured London for the first time and staged Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet in the Covent Garden Stage (October 3, 1956) to great acclaim. Margot Fonteyn expressed she had “never seen anything like it” and budding choreographer John Cranko was so inspired by the ballet that he soon started to plan his own version.

Mariinsky's Viktoria Tereshkina and Yevgeny Ivanchenko in Lavrovsky's Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Natalia Razina / Mariinsky Theatre ©

The John Cranko version

Cranko’s first staging of Romeo & Juliet was for the ballet company of La Scala in Milan in July 26, 1958. It was danced in an open amphiteatre in Venice. Designs were by Nicola Benois and the role of Juliet was danced by then 21 year-old Carla Fracci. Further revising the ballet Cranko staged it  in 1962 for his own company, The Stuttgart Ballet. Jürgen Rose was in charge of the designs and young Brazilian ballerina Marcia Haydée, soon to become Cranko’s muse, was cast in the role of Juliet, with Richard Cragun as Romeo.

Cranko’s staging is renowned for its strong corps de ballet dances, which set the atmosphere. The first scene takes place in the cramped streets of Verona, so both Montagues and Capulets are incapable of avoiding each other. In Act II the fight erupts amongst peasants on a harvest festival, with everyone involved and fruits being spilled around. At that time Cranko’s company were still developing their technique and identity so the choreography is relatively simple. When it comes to the various pas de deux one can see Lavrovsky’s influence in the very Soviet style of partnering with lifts and tosses.

Cranko’s version of Romeo and Juliet remains very popular and besides being a regular staple at the Stuttgart Ballet, it is also in repertory at The National Ballet of Canada, The Australian Ballet, Finnish National Ballet, The Joffrey, Houston Ballet, Boston Ballet, and Pensylvannia Ballet, among others.

The Kenneth MacMillan version

Kenneth MacMillan, a close friend of Cranko’s from their dancing days in the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, was inspired to create his own version for The Royal Ballet after seeing it staged by The Stuttgart Ballet. An opportunity came when The Royal Opera House failed to secure a deal with the Bolshoi to exchange performance rights for Ashton‘s La Fille Mal Gardée against Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. Ninette de Valois had also asked Sir Frederick Ashton to stage the version originally choreographed for The Royal Danish Ballet in 1955 but he feared that something created for a smaller theatre would look modest compared to the scale of the Russian production. Ashton, then Artistic Director, suggested to the Board of Directors that MacMillan should undertake the task of creating a new version.

Steven McRae and Alina Cojocaru in The Royal Ballet's production of MacMillan's Romeo & Juliet. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

MacMillan had devised a balcony scene pas de deux for Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable for a feature on Canadian television and once he received the go-ahead he started working on his first full-length ballet, nowadays one of Romeo and Juliet’s most definitive versions.

Designer Nicholas Georgiadis was inspired by Franco Zeffirelli‘s production of the Shakespearean tragedy for the Old Vic, in which the Capulets lived in a big fortress-like mansion. MacMillan wanted his ballet to be more realistic than romantic, with added contemporary touches. He wanted the young lovers to die painfully and to drop the reconciliation between Capulets and Montagues at the end of the play providing a different angle from the Lavrovsky & Cranko versions.

The ballet was choreographed on Seymour and Gable as Juliet and Romeo. As usual, MacMillan explored the role of the outsider in his portrayal of Juliet, a headstrong and opinionated girl who breaks away from her family. He started with the pas de deux (the highlights of this staging) and drew on the full company plus extras to set the town scenes.

While work was in progress Covent Garden management delivered the blow that Fonteyn and Nureyev would be first cast Juliet and Romeo, a shock to MacMillan, to Ashton (who had expected them as a first cast for the US tour  only) and to dancers Seymour and Gable who had to teach their roles and resign themselves to a lower spot on the bill.

Artists of The Royal Ballet in Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Dee Conway / ROH ©

MacMillan’s pleas to Covent Garden management to keep Seymour and Gable in the premiere were in vain. His Romeo and Juliet premiered on February 9, 1965, with Fonteyn and Nureyev taking 43 curtain calls over a 40 minute applause. In the US it quickly became the best known version of the Prokofiev ballet. Besides the Royal Ballet, the ballet is also part of the regular repertory of American Ballet Theatre, The Royal Swedish Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet (with designs by Paul Andrews).

Story

You probably don’t need our help with this one. Regardless of version the storyline remains more or less the same:

Act I

Scene 1. The Market Place in Verona

It’s early hours in Verona. Romeo unsucessfully tries to woo Rosaline and is consoled by his friends Mercutio and Benvolio. As the market awakens and street trading starts a quarrel breaks out between the Montagues and the Capulets. Tybalt, Lord Capulet’s nephew, provokes Romeo’s group and the sword fighting begins with both Lord Montague and Lord Capulet joining in. Escalus, the Prince (or Duke) of Verona, enters and commands the families to cease fighting and issues a death penalty for any further bloodshed.

Scene 2. Juliet and her Nurse at the Capulet House

Lord Capulet’s only daughter Juliet is playing with her nurse. Her parents enter her chambers and inform Juliet of her impending engagement to the wealthy noblement Paris to whom she is to be formally introduced at the evening’s ball. In MacMillan’s version Juliet’s introduction to Paris happens at this point.

Scene 3. Outside the Capulet House

Guests are seen arriving at the Capulets’. Romeo,  still in pursuit of Rosaline, makes his way into the ball in disguise accompanied by Mercutio and Benvolio.

Scenes 4 & 5. The Ballroom & Outside the Capulet House

At the ball all eyes are on Juliet as she dances with her friends. Romeo becomes so entranced by her that he completely ignores Mercutio’s attempts to distract him. As Juliet starts to notice Romeo his mask falls. Juliet is immediately bewitched but Tybalt recognises Romeo and orders him to leave. Lord Capulet intervenes and welcomes Romeo and his friends as guests. At this point in MacMillan’s staging we see inebriated guests leaving and Lord Capulet stopping Tybalt from pursuing Romeo.

Scene 6. Juliet’s Balcony

Later that night Juliet is unable to sleep and stands on her balcony thinking about Romeo. Just then he appears on the garden below and they both dance a passionate pas de deux where they express their mutual feelings.

Mariinsky's Vladimir Shlyarov and Yevgenia Obraztsova in Lavrovsky's Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Natalia Razina / Mariinsky Theatre ©

Mariinsky's Vladimir Shklyarov and Yevgenia Obraztsova in Lavrovsky's Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Natalia Razina / Mariinsky Theatre ©

Act II

Scenes 1 & 2. The Market Place & Friar Laurence’s Chapel

As festivities are being held at the marketplace Romeo daydreams about getting married to Juliet. His reverie is broken when Juliet’s nurse makes her way through the crowds bringing him Juliet’s letter with the acceptance to his proposal. The young couple is secretly married by Friar Laurence, who hopes the union will end the conflict between their respective families.

Scene 3. The Market Place

Tybalt enters interruping the festivities. He provokes Romeo, who now avoids the duel, realising he is now part of Juliet’s family. Mercutio is willing to engage with Tybalt and, in vain, Romeo attempts to stop them. Mercutio is fatally wounded by Tybalt. Romeo seeking to avenge his friend’s death finally yields to Tybalt’s provocations and kills him. Romeo must now flee before being discovered by Prince of Verona. Curtains close as Lady Capulet grieves over Tybalt’s dead body and her breakdown is particularly emphasised in Cranko’s staging.

José Martín as Mercutio and Thiago Soares as Tybalt in The Royal Ballet's production of MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Dee Conway / ROH ©

Act III

Scene 1. Juliet’s Bedroom

Romeo has spent his last night in Verona with Juliet but as dawn arrives he must flee for Mantua despite her pleas. To Juliet’s dismay Lord and Lady Capulet appear together with Paris to start preparations for the wedding. Juliet refuses to marry Paris and Lord Capulet threatens to disown her. In despair, Juliet seeks Friar Laurence’s counsel.

Scenes 2 & 3. Friar Laurence’s Chapel & Juliet’s Bedroom

Juliet begs Friar Laurence for help. He gives Juliet a sleeping potion that will make her fall into a deathlike sleep. This will make everyone believe Juliet is dead while the Friar will send for Romeo to rescue her. Juliet returns home and agrees to marry Paris. She drinks the potion and falls unconscious. Her friends and parents arrive the next morning and discover her lifeless.

Scene 4. The Capulet Family Crypt

Romeo has heard of Juliet’s death (in the Lavrovsky version we see Romeo break down in grief as the news are delivered to him) and has returned to Verona without having received Friar Laurence’s message. He enters the crypt disguised as a monk where he finds Paris by Juliet’s body. Stunned by grief, Romeo kills Paris (this is absent from Lavrovsky’s staging). Still believing Juliet to be dead Romeo drinks a vial of poison and collapses. Juliet awakes to find Romeo dead beside her. She stabs herself to join Romeo in death.

Epilogue (Lavrovsky version)

Both Montagues and Capulets gather together and reconcile before their children’s bodies.

Lauren Cuthbertson and Edward Watson in The Royal Ballet's production of MacMillan's Romeo & Juliet. Photo: Dee Conway / ROH ©

Videos:

Other versions

Prokofiev’s masterful composition for Romeo and Juliet is now better known than any other but a number of earlier and later productions of the ballet have been set to different scores and choreography:

  • Antony Tudor‘s Romeo and Juliet for Ballet Theatre, now ABT (1943), set to various pieces of music by Frederick Delius.

  • Sir Frederick Ashton’s Romeo and Juliet for The Royal Danish Ballet (1955). This is a signature Ashton piece with none of Lavrovsky’s influence (as Ashton had not yet seen that staging). Clips of the revival by London Festival Ballet with Katherine Healy as Juliet can be found here [link]

  • Maurice Béjart‘s  Romeo and Juliet (1966). Set to the music of Berlioz this version was presented at the Cirque Royal, Brussels. A video featuring Suzanne Farrell as Juliet and Jorge Donn as Romeo can be found here [link]

  • Rudolf Nureyev’s version for the London Festival Ballet (1977). Nureyev later reworked this same version for the Paris Opera Ballet (1984). The ballet is available on DVD with Monique Loudieres as Juliet and Manuel Legris as Romeo. Clips can be seen here [link]

  • John Neumeier‘s for the Frankfurt Ballet (1971). This version was restaged for his own Hamburg Ballet in 1974. It has also been further revised and staged by The Royal Danish Ballet. Clips can be seen here [link]

  • Yuri Grigorovich‘s version for the Bolshoi (1982) set to Prokofiev’s score. This version is still danced by the company.

  • Jean Christophe Maillot‘s Rómeo et Juliette for Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo (1996). This version has been staged by other companies, most recently by Pacific Northwest Ballet. A trailer can be found in PNBallet’s YT channel [link]

  • Peter Martins’s Romeo + Juliet for NYCB (2007). A series of videos following the ballet’s creative process can be found on NYCB‘s channel [link]

Music

Prokofiev’s score for Romeo and Juliet is considered one of the four greatest orchestral compositions for ballet (together with Tchaikovsky’s scores for Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker). He originally conceived the score as 53 sections linked by the dramatic elements of the story, each section named after the characters and/or situations in the ballet.

Like Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev developed leitmotifs for the characters. There are 7 themes for Juliet varying from her playful/girlish side in Act I to romantic and dramatic themes which follow her development into a woman in love and foreshadow the impending tragedy in Act III.

A quintessential Spotify / iPod playlist should include the three orchestra suites (Opus 64bis, Opus 64ter and Opus 101)

  1. Suite No 1. Folk Dance, The Street Awakens, Madrigal, The Arrival of Guests, Masks, Romeo and Juliet, Death of Tybalt.
  2. Suite No 2. Montagues and Capulets, Juliet the Young Girl, Dance, Romeo and Juliet before parting, Dance of the Girls with Lilies, Romeo at Juliet’s Grave.
  3. Suite No 3. Romeo at the Fountain, Morning Dance, Juliet, The Nurse, Morning Serenade, The Death of Juliet.

Mini-Biography

Choreography: Leonid Lavrovsky
Music: Sergei Prokofiev
Designs: Pyotr Williams
Original Cast: Galina Ulanova as Juliet and Konstantin Sergeyev as Romeo
Premiere: January 11, 1940, Kirov Theatre, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).

Choregraphy: John Cranko
Music: Sergei Prokofiev
Designs: Jürgen Rose
Original Cast: Marcia Haydée as Juliet and Richard Crangun as Romeo
Premiere:December 2, 1962, Stuttgart.

Choreography: Kenneth MacMillan
Music: Sergei Prokofiev
Designs: Nicholas Georgiadis
Original Cast: Margot Fonteyn as Juliet and Rudolf Nureyev as Romeo
Premiere:February 9, 1965 at Covent Garden, London.

Sources and Further Information

  1. The Royal Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet (Kenneth MacMillan) Programme Notes, 2007/2008 Season.
  2. Romeo & Juliet entry at www.KennethMacmillan.com [link]
  3. Wikipedia entry for Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet score [link]
  4. Romeo and Juliet Notes (John Cranko) from National Ballet of Canada [link]
  5. Notes from Tbsili Opera and Ballet Theatre [link]
  6. Ballet Met Notes [link]
  7. Stuttgart Ballet Performance Notes at Cal Performances [link]
  8. Dedicated Romeo and Juliet. Dance review by Anna Kisselgoff. New York Times, July 1998 [link]
  9. From London, a Poetic Romeo that makes others seem prosy. Dance review by Anna Kisselgoff. New York Times, 1989 [link]
  10. Romeo and Juliet, Theatricality and Other Techniques of Expression by Katherine S. Healy. Following Sir Fred’s Steps, Ashton’s Legacy. Edited by Stephanie Jordan and Andrée Grau. Conference Proceedings, 1994 [link]
  11. Opposing Houses: Judith Mackrell on visions of Romeo and Juliet from Ashton and MacMillan. Dance review, The Independent. August, 1994 [link]

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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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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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Ondine

Is this ballet for you?

Go if: You are an Ashton fan. You have a keen eye for demanding technique, quick steps and plenty of characterisation in dance. You like stories involving fantasy femmes fatales, mermaids and ill-fated romances, especially those with a Victorian edge.

Skip if: You can’t put up with a difficult non-melodic score. Hans Werner Henze’s modernist music, tailor made to resemble a continuous flow of water & spray of the sea throughout the ballet has been a hard sell with many, including Ashton himself.

Dream Cast: Tamara Rojo.

Tamara Rojo and Edward Watson in Ondine. Photo: Dee Conway ©. Source: The Observer.

Ondine is a 3 act ballet originally created by Sir Frederick Ashton as a vehicle for Margot Fonteyn. The ballet, like the Opera “Rusalka”, is loosely based on Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué‘s novella “Undine”. Ondine is the only Ashton ballet choreographed to specially commissioned music and where Ashton worked in close proximity to the composer, Hans Werner Henze, providing him with plenty of notes and details on precise timings for steps. The costumes and designs by Lila de Nobili evoke the 19th century romantic classics such as Giselle against a maritime backdrop, think “La Sylphide under the sea”.

When it premiered, the critics hailed Fonteyn but expressed reservations against the music. The audience’s difficulty in connecting with the work also had to do with the fact that Ondine is more concerned with generating a mood and trying to replicate the feeling of water in dance, than with telling a straightforward story (although there is plenty of symbolism for the smart ballet goer to reflect on). It has little pyrotechnics to generate thunderous applause and plays to the lyrical strengths of the main ballerina in its fluid choreography and aqueous motifs. Ondine is a substance vs. form ballet, its subtlety might not appeal to everyone’s tastes but it’s a work which shows Ashton at his most avant-garde: its continuous undertow of dance was probably a major influence for Kenneth MacMillan‘s own seamless (& mime-less) choreography later on.

See below a short video where ballerina Tamara Rojo and veteran ballet critic Mr. Clement Crisp talk about the story, the music and motifs in Ondine:


The Story:

Ondine is a water sprite (or nymph) who emerges out of a waterfall onto land fascinated with her own shadow, something she had never seen before. She is observed by Palemon, a mortal man, who is completely entranced by her innocence and gentle manner of playing and marvelling at the sight of this shadow. Realising she is being observed, Ondine is at the same time drawn to and repelled by the human figure of Palemon, especially when she feels his heart beat (as water sprites have no hearts or souls). Dancing a beautiful “watery” pas de deux where Palemon tries to grab and hold slippery Ondine, they fall in love and decide to marry.

Before her marriage Ondine is warned by her uncle Tirrenio, Lord of the Mediterranean sea, that marrying a mortal and thus acquiring a human soul is against a water nymph’s nature and potentially fatal, should Palemon ever betray her. Ondine decides to ignore Tirrenio’s warning as she loves and trusts Palemon to be faithful. Little does she know that Palemon has broken a previous engagement to mortal Berta in deciding to marry her.

Palemon and Ondine get married and set out on a boat trip. A terrible storm unfolds caused by Tirrenio to force Ondine to return to the sea. She is lost overboard and Palemon, having survived the shipwreck and believing Ondine to be forever lost to him, ends up marrying Berta.

On the day of their wedding heartbroken Ondine reappears before a perplexed Palemon. Meanwhile, Tirrenio exerts revenge against the new couple by bringing destruction to the palace and to all of Palemon and Berta’s guests. It is then that Palemon realises his betrayal and the price he has to pay: he longs to be reunited with Ondine and tries to kiss her but when their lips finally meet, he dies. The ballet’s final Victorian looking tableau shows a grief stricken Ondine watching over Palemon’s lifeless body which she has dragged under the sea as an eternal keepsake.

Ondine is part of The Royal Ballet’s Summer Season from the 27 of May – 6 of June, with Alexandra Ansanelli, Miyako Yoshida and Roberta Marquez in the principal role.

Mini Biography:

Choreography: Sir Frederick Ashton
Music: Hans Werner Henze
Original Design: Lila de Nobili
Original Cast: Margot Fonteyn, Michael Somes and Alexander Grant.
Premiere: 27 October 1958, Covent Garden, London.

Sources and Further Information:

  1. Dance Review by Roslyn Sulcas at the New York Times. Dec. 5 2008 [link]
  2. Wikipedia entry for Ondine (Ashton).
  3. Water Magic by John Percival. Danceviewtimes, 2005.
  4. Ballet.contexts. Facts about Ondine at ballet.co. Written by Jane Simpson, 2005.
  5. An excellent article by Alastair Macaulay about the symbolism of water creatures in ballet and opera.

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