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 (and featuring every single ballet step in the syllabus).
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 (usually present in western versions, but not in Soviet Beauties) or overly long ballets – think 3 hours including intervals!
Aurora: There are currently no better Auroras in our books than Alina Cojocaru & Evgenia Obraztsova.
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 Roberto Bolle, Mariinsky’s Igor Kolb, ABT’s Marcelo Gomes, Bolshoi’s David Hallberg, NYCB’s Robbie Fairchild. At the Royal Ballet, rising star Sergei Polunin is very princely.
Lilac Fairy: Ulyana Lopatkina, Veronika Part and Marianela Nuñez.
In 1888 Ivan Vsevolozhsky, Director of the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg, had the idea to adapt Charles Perrault‘s tale of The Sleeping Beauty into a ballet, a bold move at a time when fairy tale-based ballets were in low public demand and largely viewed as theatrical gimmicks. He invited Tchaikovsky to compose the music, knowing that Swan Lake (the first version by Wenzel Reisinger/Joseph Hansen) had not been a huge success and that Petipa‘s ballets were not faring well. But Vsevolozhsky – a diplomat who had also served as librettist and costume designer – was a visionary: thinking of the potential for Petipa and the dance talents of the Imperial Theatre, he 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 his verdict on Tchaikovsky’s score: simply a polite “very nice”. Mixed reviews for the splendid January 15th premiere showed that audiences themselves had been captivated by the beauty of the music, even if it was constantly referred to as “symphonic”.
Some reviewers thought the ballet’s libretto was simplistic and juvenile, with designs that were “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, the “Neva Pickwickians”. Amongst them artists like George Balanchine, Alexandre Benois, Léon Bakst, Sergei Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky and Anna Pavlova, who would give The Sleeping Beauty a boost and help it become the most performed ballet in the Mariinsky’s history. Incidentally, the theatre’s heritage 1890 production was revived in 1999, in a lavish reconstruction by Sergey Vikharev.
The Sleeping Beauty was first performed outside Russia in Milan in 1896. But in St. Petersburg, with the revolution under way, the production went into decline. The ballet continued to flourish in the West thanks to Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. Their 1921 London staging of The Sleeping Princess was a new full-length work (their repertory also had a 45-min abridged version: Aurora’s Wedding) with designs by Léon Bakst, new orchestrations by Stravinsky and revised choreography by Nijinska. It was given 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 the company in 1939 by Nicholas Sergeyev who had fled the Russian revolution with the original Mariinsky notations in his suitcase, with a then 19-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 and the company’s new home at the Royal Opera House where Margot Fonteyn and Robert Helpmann danced the leads Aurora and Prince Florimund/Carabosse. With legendary designs by Oliver Messel, 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 where Fonteyn’s Aurora was acclaimed by New York audiences.
This production was restaged by the Royal Ballet in 2006, to celebrate its 75th anniversary and remains in repertoire. For the current revival at the Royal Opera House (2011/2012 season) costumes have been further redesigned after the 1946 Messel originals.
Petipa and Vsevolozhsky based the ballet’s libretto on the original fairy tale by Charles Perrault (later popularised by the Brothers Grimm), with modifications from the source text to allow for the dancing. Of course, there are slight changes in the main argument from one ballet company to another:
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
The fairies arrive to bestow on the Princess gifts and virtues of, respectively, purity, beauty, generosity, musicality and vitality. Each dances 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 – who is 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 the poor man 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 will 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.
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 festivities resume.
Four princes arrive from far away lands (known as the French, Spanish, Indian and Russian princes) to meet the princess and offer her gifts of exquisite roses. Aurora’s friends enter and Cattalabutte finally announces her arrival. The music becomes as fast as heatbeats and the princess bursts onto stage in 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 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 smitten prince.
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. Sure enough, Aurora pricks her finger and collapses. The old lady – who reveals herself as Carabosse – laughs triumphantly and vanishes 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.
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 succeeding in his quest, 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.
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, 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.
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 in the score.
An essential Sleeping Beauty playlist for your ipod should include the below tracks, which are listed as in the original 1890 version. Note that track names may vary depending on CD editions:
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)
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
- Wikipedia Entry for Sleeping Beauty [link]
- BalletMet Sleeping Beauty Notes by Gerald Charles [link]
- NYCB Sleeping Beauty Notes [link]
- 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.
- For Ballet Lovers Only: feature on the Reconstructed Beauty by Doug Fullington [link]
- 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]
- The Magic of Sleeping Beauty. Royal Opera House Podcast, presented by Deborah Bull. 2007 [link]
- Wake up Princess, the Movies are Calling. Dance review by Alastair Macaulay for the NY Times [link]
- CD: Tchaikovsky: The Sleeping Beauty London Symphony Orchestra directed by André Previn, 2004. EMI Classics. [link]