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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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Marie Taglioni. Coloured Lithograph, circa 1831. From the V&A Theatre Museum © Source: Wikipedia

Marie Taglioni. Coloured Lithograph, circa 1831. From the V&A Theatre Museum © Source: Wikipedia

From the moment Marie Taglioni put on her ballet shoes and stood on pointe the cult of the ballerina took flight. The ballerina, the female expert in the art of ballet who lives and suffers for her art, is forever associated with intrinsic qualities of lightness and grace. But just like Mr. Darcy’s remarks on truly accomplished women (“no one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with… she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved”), should we not also comprehend a great deal in our idea of a graceful dancer?

A while ago we were asked by one of our Facebook group members to write a comment on what makes a dancer graceful. This post attempts to approach this delicate topic (since not every ballerina is a synonym for gracefulness) from an audience perspective. Technique, which forms the basis, the backbone of a dancer’s art, is an objective measure. But grace, like artistry, is subjective and largely depends on the eye of the beholder. For evidence of that one only needs to take a tour of ballet on YouTube.

Pick a male or female dancer you like, watch a selection of videos featuring that dancer and try to form your own views. Then read the various comments in reaction to his or her performance: for every person who finds your chosen dancer graceful there will always be a dissenting voice. The FT critic Peter Aspden made interesting remarks on this when he wrote a very interesting article about the Mariinsky’s Alina Somova, a controversial dancer who continues to spark inflamed debate on YouTube and on ballet related web boards because of her use of extreme extensions in classical ballet. Some, like Aspden, perceive her as extremely graceful, while others see exactly the opposite.

Ballet is a contemplative art and to use another visual art parallel, there is no way to convince someone who prefers Impressionism to Cubism that Picasso is artistically superior to Monet. There are ways, however, to draw an observer’s attention to details they might have previously overlooked in a painting, to steer his or her eyes towards features which might lead to a reassessment of that work of art. So whilst we cannot define grace, here are some elements which we think would naturally emanate from a graceful dancer:

  • Good Line – as Robert Greskovic notes: “true ballet line has little to do with the dancer’s limbs and everything to do with the harmonious coordination of each part seen as a totality.” A good line emanates from the dancer’s centre to reach out to all compass points of his or her body, think a beacon irradiating from the lighthouse. For an example of a good line see Anthony Dowell executing Des Grieux‘s first act solo [link]

  • Port de Bras (carriage of the arms) – of course a good dancer must display perfect coordination between legs, feet, torso, arms, hands, neck and head, but soft, pliant arms help accentuate the gracefulness of the whole movement, to emphasize its poetry. Here one can draw an interesting comparison between male and female dancers: male port de bras is simpler and sharper to make them look more virile, stronger, their line more visible, while the female arms are more laboured, making them look more delicate (see this post for more Port de Bras comparisons). For an example of graceful arms, see Ulyana Lopatkina in Swan Lake [link]

  • Musicality – the most obvious way to define a musical dancer is to think of the music box ballerina cliché. A highly musical dancer will trick you into forgetting about the orchestra pit and thinking that his or her movement is creating the music, so well they are matched. It goes beyond being technically precise. Of course, it should be noted that choreographers will treat music differently and the dance can either be on top of the melody or purposefully dissociated from the music, as is the case in certain modern choreography (ie. Merce Cunningham). A dancer that is often acknowledged as having been extremely musical was Balanchine‘s muse, Suzanne Farrell.

  • Physical qualities – one cannot underestimate the importance of well proportioned limbs and a beautiful face in ballet. On the other hand there are dancers who have broken the mold, redefining the concept of perfect proportions. These can be some of the most exciting dancers to watch because they transform what might have been perceived as a drawback into strength and create a form of unconventional grace. For examples of dancers who break the mold, see Alina Somova and Edward Watson making the most of their elastic and slender physiques in, respectively, Ratmansky’s The Little Humpbacked Horse [link] and Wayne McGregor’s production of Händel’s Acis & Galatea [link].

And here we feature some of our favorite graceful dancers who combine all the elements above. Feel free to post yours if you have one!

Sarah Lamb as Princess Florine (Bluebird Pas de Deux)

Sarah seems to be floating on a cloud of dance, her movements so light and fluid, every step a music note.

Alina Cojocaru as Cinderella

This is probably one of the most enchanting ballet videos on YouTube, Alina is simply radiant, never exposing to the audience the pitfalls of Ashton’s choreograpy (which demands from the dancer coordination between a soft upper body and fast feet)

Gelsey Kirkland as Giselle

This is a beautiful rendition of the famous Spessivtseva solo (Giselle’s first act variation) in which every single movement is linked into a whole. Notice how softly she gets down from arabesque into penché, her arms lingering with the music.

Viktoria Tereshkina as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty

While the dancers above represent the “ethereal and petite ballerina” we have a contrasting example in Tereshkina, a tall dancer who looks poised, elegant yet delicate in one of the most graceful choreographies in classical ballet.

Natalia Makarova as Odette (Swan Lake)

Around 3:39 you can see Odette’s variation. Makarova was the quintessential ballerina, a perfect match between technique and artistry: every step is used as a means for conveying emotion. A really graceful and touching performance.

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