George Balanchine once observed that Tschaikovsky's overture for The Sleeping Beauty introduces the story "in miniature." As the theme representing the wicked fairy Carabosse swells, a harp interrupts, ushering in the sweet, melodic harmonies of the virtuous Lilac Fairy, who will triumph over evil. The music changes once again, to a march, and the scene is set for the christening of Princess Aurora, whose journey to womanhood informs the ballet.
Every great classical ballet has superlative roles for women, from Odette/Odile to the Sugarplum Fairy. But with three powerful female characters, The Sleeping Beauty is exceptional. It is impossible to imagine the work without any of the three. Yet each character is so vibrant and intriguing, she could carry an entire ballet on her own with ease.
Principal dancers Darci Kistler, Kyra Nichols, and Merrill Ashley welcomed the rewarding task of dancing the roles and shaping the characters of Aurora, Lilac Fairy, and Carabosse for the debut performance of New York City Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty in spring 1991. "It was such a big step for the company to do this ballet," says Ms. Kistler. "It had been the dream of Mr. B. to do it, and I think he would be very happy if he saw this version."
Balanchine was, of course, famous for telling his dancers, "Don't act, dear," a dictum that would seem to be at cross purposes with a story-driven ballet, such as The Sleeping Beauty. But the three ballerinas say his admonition was as appropriate in the preparation of The Sleeping Beauty as it was for plotless ballets, such as Symphony in C. "Mr. B. always said, 'Let the music pull you,' and if you have to act, be simple, direct, and use your entire body," Ms. Nichols says. "In The Sleeping Beauty the music is so expressive, if you listen, you know exactly what to do."
Ms. Kistler found everything she needed to know about Aurora's sweet persona in Tschaikovsky's radiant score. "You hear every feeling, from the time she's introduced as a young girl to when she becomes a woman," she says.
Though the ballet was a favorite of Ms. Kistler's from the time she as a young girl saw a production starring Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, she looked to the Balanchine repertory for insight and inspiration as she prepared for her role. "The dancer in Tschaikovsky Piano Concert No. 2 is more like a queen than a princess, but she starts off and ends up much like Aurora in the last act of The Sleeping Beauty," she says. And mastering the arduous steps on display in Diamonds (the shimmering white tutu segment of Jewels) and even the grand pas in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker proved ideal warm-up for Aurora's technical feats.
The formidable Rose Adagio attitude that never seems to end was always a highlight. "It's one of those transcendent moments when everything comes together," says Ms. Kistler, who no longer dances the role of Aurora. "It's a perfect example of why young women become ballerinas."
Ms. Nichols spotted intriguing similarities between the Lilac Fairy and Glinda, the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz. "There's some Sugarplum Fairy in the Lilac Fairy, too," she says. She chose to express the Fairy's deep-seated qualities of goodness and leadership by consciously enlarging every movement and dancing on an extra grand scale. "Lilac is the top fairy, the one in control, and I needed to show her presence," she says.
Since Ms. Nichols was already adept at dancing large, the key to embodying the character was trusting herself to let the Lilac Fairy take charge. "I would also remind myself that The Sleeping Beauty is a tutu ballet," she says. "When you're in a tutu, you're a real ballerina. You move a certain way, and the man is there to show you off."
Ms. Nichols says she always got goosebumps when she heard the music from the vision scene, where the Lilac Fairy conjures an image of Aurora to captivate the prince. "You hear the music speak for the prince, and he says, 'I love her, I want to marry her,'" she says. "All I'm doing is standing there, but that music is to die for, and the wave of emotion is so strong."
Though Carabosse is a principal character, choreographers love to play with her persona. In the original 1890 Maryinsky production, she was portrayed by the great Italian dancer Enrico Cecchetti. But Peter Martins, who choreographed the NYCB production, envisioned her as glamorous woman, evil but enticing. Ms. Ashley came to relish that interpretation as she fine-tuned each detail. "If Carabosse were ugly, you'd walk a certain way, but because she's beautiful, you walk tall and she becomes this towering feminine presence," says Ms. Ashley.
Unlike Aurora and the Lilac Fairy, Carabosse preens and prowls but does not dance on pointe, which meant Ms. Ashley relied on her upper body, particularly her head and hands, to convey her fury. "Carabosse is facetious: she pretends to be gracious at the christening, but actually she's seething," says Ms. Ashley. "And the hands can convey those two conflicting emotions."
The sinewy beaded black gown, designed by Patricia Zipprodt, renders Carabosse dangerously alluring, which further aided Ms. Ashley in her interpretation. "Those flowing chiffon batwings emphasize everything you do and make you feel imposing," she says.
But the music is what enables Ms. Ashley, who will most likely perform as Carabosse this season, to transform herself into the fiendish fairy. "You hear it building, just like her anger," she says. "And that helps me let loose. So often when you're angry, you can't express it. But here, if I feel angry, I can just let it out. And that's a great feeling."
Terry Trucco writes about dance, design, and travel for national publications.