The Sleeping Beauty, like Swan Lake and The Nutcracker — all with music by Tchaikovsky — is among the most beloved classical ballets. However, the ballet, which has become one of the most important works in the dance canon, had some unlikely beginnings. At its first performance, in St. Petersburg in 1890, it was not an immediate success. There were those, especially among the critics, who considered Tchaikovsky's music undanceable, the story a mere fairy tale, the choreography trivial. Some even said it was not a ballet at all, but a kind of vaudeville entertainment. Only gradually did it come to be recognized as the greatest work of its choreographer, Marius Petipa.
The first major production outside Russia, the sumptuous revival presented by Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in London in 1921, was a box-office flop, and closed after 105 performances, instead of running for six months as Diaghilev had hoped. It was only after the Sadler's Wells Ballet, forerunner of today's Royal Ballet, staged it, first in 1939, and then in the glorious production that reopened London's Royal Opera House after World War II, in February 1946, that The Sleeping Beauty began to win public favor, and became the company's signature ballet. (It was, of course, with Beauty that the Sadler's Wells Ballet, led by Margot Fonteyn, conquered New York in October 1949.) Since then, every major company has produced its own version.
American Ballet Theatre has presented six different productions of The Sleeping Beauty, beginning with the one-act Princess Aurora in 1941. The new version to be unveiled at the beginning of June this year, in ABT's annual season at the Metropolitan Opera, will be a Sleeping Beauty with a difference. Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie is insistent that this will be a collaborative project by himself and the company's former ballerina Gelsey Kirkland, who has danced the title role of Aurora with both ABT and the Royal Ballet. The third member of the creative team that has been working on the production for a year and a half is writer Michael Chernov, Kirkland's husband, in the capacity of dramaturge.
Usually, those who stage the ballet at least follow Petipa's original scenario. Any changes they make will have to do with certain elements of the choreography, not the allegorical significance of the plot. Kirkland, McKenzie, and Chernov are not changing the story; in fact in some ways they are preserving its original form. As McKenzie points out, this is an ancient story found in the Thousand and One Nights and in Nordic legend, long before it was included in Charles Perrault's Tales of Mother Goose. In particular, they want to establish the distinction between the two worlds in which the action takes place: the supernatural world of the Lilac Fairy and her cohorts and Carabosse, the "wicked" fairy, and the human world inhabited by Aurora, her parents, and the Prince who awakens her from her 100-year slumber. It is the failure to invite Carabosse to the christening of the infant princess that triggers the action. Carabosse will not be seen here as an ugly harridan, still less a man in drag, but as another fairy whose "terrible beauty" encompasses all evil. Lilac and her other fairies will be present throughout — she always shows up when needed to protect Aurora or to guide the Prince.
To clarify the difference between the two time frames in which the story takes place, Kirkland and McKenzie and the designers, Tony Walton (scenery) and Willa Kim (costumes), are placing the Prologue and Act I earlier than usual, with an almost medieval feel, and the last two acts in the time of the Sun King. (They see the sun as a driving motif throughout — "Aurora" equals "sunrise.") This means that Aurora may have slept, and cheated death, for more than 100 years, but this, they feel, only strengthens the story.
Choreographically, this will be in many ways a traditional Sleeping Beauty. There has been some input from ballet mistress Irina Kolpakova, who as a former ballerina of the Kirov Ballet was familiar with both the 1952 version by Konstantin Sergeyev and the 1922 one by Fyodor Lopukhov, generally considered to be more authentic. The famous sequences will be there: the solos of the fairies bringing gifts to the christening, in the Prologue; the Rose Adagio for Aurora and her four suitors, in Act I; the Vision Scene in Act II; the Blue Bird pas de deux in Act III. Otherwise, the third act will be streamlined — individual numbers by wedding guests from the supernatural world of fairy tales, such as Red Riding Hood and the White Cat and Puss-in-Boots, will be eliminated and their characters incorporated into the opening Polonaise. They won't be lost altogether: McKenzie is saving them for a one-act Aurora's Wedding in later repertory programs.
However, some changes will be made. There will be new choreography for Carabosse and her minions in the Prologue, for the Garland Dance in Act I, and for much of the hunting scene in Act II. (All of it a team effort.) The producers want to get away from the cliché of a moody Prince — he is simply someone who realizes his situation is not right for him, but who finds he must make certain sacrifices to attain his ideal. The beautiful Symphonic Entr'acte with its violin solo will be interpolated before the Vision Scene as a reverie for the Prince. Kirkland observes that "if you live long enough with this choreography you see that it's built on diagonals" — the Prince follows the same path in pursuit of his vision. Chernov elaborates on this idea: different areas of the stage symbolize different phases of the Prince's journey. He and Kirkland promise some surprises that they do not wish to divulge in advance.
The Nutcracker, Chernov says, is "a confection." But this Sleeping Beauty will be a deeper experience — like all good fairy tales, it has a hidden, serious meaning that can teach us a lesson about life. As Kirkland adds, Aurora is nothing less than "humanity's hope."
David Vaughan is the author of Frederick Ashton and his Ballets and Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years.