The Sleeping Beauty, it could easily be said, is the definition of classical ballet. While Swan Lake is flush with romanticism and The Nutcracker rates high in popularity, The Sleeping Beauty, originally choreographed by Marius Petipa for the czar's Mariinsky Theater of St. Petersburg, truly represents the theatrical use of classical ballet vocabulary in its purist form. When former Houston Ballet artistic director Ben Stevenson's critically acclaimed production of The Sleeping Beauty returns to the company's stage in March, audiences will have the chance to savor the storybook ballet that delivers charm, pristine dancing, glorious d_cor, and the monumental score of Tchaikovsky.
Stevenson based his staging on the famed Royal Ballet production with the legendary Dame Margot Fonteyn as Aurora, the title role of the ballet. The British adaptation of The Sleeping Beauty toured the world (with rapturous receptions in the United States) in the 1940s and 1950s. It was staged by Nikolai Sergeyev, Petipa's assistant for the Russian premiere in 1890. Having danced in the Royal Ballet version with Fonteyn, Stevenson went on to use that as his prototype, adding bits of new choreography, first for the London Festival Ballet, then the National Ballet of Washington, and later for Houston Ballet.
"I was really putting on a production of Petipa's Sleeping Beauty making bridges with my own work to give the ballet my own look." says Stevenson. "I didn't want Carabosse (the evil fairy) to be a man dressed up as an old crone with a walking stick. I wanted her to be glamorous, like Joan Collins."
The Sleeping Beauty provides a wonderful introduction to ballet for newcomers for a number of reasons. "I think it is because of the story, but also the incredible music," says Stevenson. "Tchaikovsky wrote scores that suit ballet perfectly. The music is wonderfully melodic and very accessible. And parents like to take their children because it is a fairy story." (The original tale derives from a story written by the French author Charles Perrault in the 17th century). The splendid dancing in The Sleeping Beauty is bolstered by the renowned choreography, still very true to the pure Russian classicism as filtered through the theatrical and exacting British style.
The sets and costumes for Houston Ballet's production of The Sleeping Beauty were designed by the Tony award-winning British designer Desmond Heeley. Featuring a vibrant palette of colors, the d_cor takes the viewer from the French court of the 17th century and 18th centuries to the fantasy landscape through which the Prince wanders in search of his beloved Aurora. In his design of the ballet, Heeley referenced the original work of Oliver Messel, the famed British designer who created the d_cor for the 1946 Royal Ballet premiere of The Sleeping Beauty.
For Houston Ballet's premiere in 1990, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of the ballet's Russian debut, Stevenson brought in Dame Margot Fonteyn, considered by many to be the greatest interpreter of Aurora, to coach the ballerinas. "I remember her saying in the opening entrance that the name Aurora means sunshine and that you've got to be Aurora," says Stevenson. "She also talked about the speed necessary for the role." For the Rose Adagio, the climactic scene of the ballet which serves as a showcase for the young Aurora, Fonteyn was especially helpful. "Dame Margot showed them not only how to play an extraordinary 16-year-old, but also how to give the Rose Adagio the triumph it needs. She had excelled in the role so many times in her career," says Stevenson.
Stevenson thinks that the role of Aurora is in many ways the most demanding ballerina role in the classical repertoire. "Although Swan Lake is technically very difficult, too, you somehow have drama you can hide behind. In The Sleeping Beauty you are extremely exposed with the classical technique." In addition to Fonteyn, some of the great Auroras have included the Russians Natalia Makarova and Irina Kolpakova and the Americans Cynthia Gregory and Gelsey Kirkland.
The story of The Sleeping Beauty retains its familiarity through the timelessness of its lessons. At the christening of the infant Princess Aurora, a host of fairies bestows their blessings, led by the Lilac Fairy, the embodiment of benevolence and good will. Carabosse, the evil fairy, arrives in a rage because she has been omitted from the guest list. She curses Aurora, claiming that she will die when she pricks her finger on a spindle on her 16th birthday. The Lilac Fairy softens the curse by saying the young princess will merely sleep for 100 years until she is awakened by the kiss of a handsome prince.
On her 16th birthday, Aurora dances the Rose Adagio with four courtiers from around the globe. Carabosse, in disguise, presents Aurora with the dreaded spindle, and the entire kingdom is placed under a spell where they sleep for 100 years. A century later, Prince Florimund encounters the Lilac Fairy who shows him a vision of Aurora. He begs her to lead him to the sleeping princess. The Prince finds Aurora, kisses her and the entire kingdom awakens. In a grand ceremony, Aurora and the Prince are wed with the blessings of the Lilac Fairy. Good, as in any great fairy tale, prevails over evil.
Stevenson looks forward to working with company again while setting The Sleeping Beauty. "It's special for me, because during that season with Houston Ballet we were opening the Wortham Center. It was the joy of the combination of Petipa's choreography, the Tchaikovsky score and Desmond Heeley's sumptuous sets and costumes," says Stevenson. "And it still looks fresh and alive. This is an important ballet and an important ballerina role. You have to have a great company to match that."
Simply put, for the thrill of watching exceptional classical ballet, it's difficult to compete with The Sleeping Beauty.
Joseph Carman is a senior advising editor for Dance Magazine and the author of Round About the Ballet.