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#Throwback Thursday: The Sleeping Beauty

The subject of today's #ThrowbackThursday is one of the greats of the classical tradition: The Sleeping Beauty. The ballet represents a meeting of great minds: the story comes from the fairy tales of Charles Perrault, the music was written by the great Tchaikovsky, and the choreography was devised, like so many 19th century ballets, by Marius Petipa.

Aurora and the Prince, Grand Pas de Deux, Mariinsky Ballet

Usually set in a fairy tale version of France, Perrault's home country, the ballet is in three acts and a prologue. In the Prologue, also called The Christening, King Florestan XXIV and his Queen have welcomed a daughter, Princess Aurora. They invite six fairies to her grand christening ceremony, who will give the child gifts and act as her godmothers. The names and functions of the fairies vary, but the original production named them Candide, Coulante, Miettes, Canari, Violente, and the Lilac Fairy. They each represent a virtue or quality they will pass on to Aurora, commonly given as beauty, courage, sweetness, musical talent, and mischief respectively.

The Fairies arrive, Bolshoi Ballet

Once her five sisters have given the baby their gifts, the Lilac Fairy prepares to bestow her own blessing on the princess, but is interrupted by the sudden arrival of the evil fairy Carabosse (known to Disney fans as Maleficent). She is accompanied by her entourage, usually dressed as rats or some form of monster. She furiously demands to know why she was not invited to attend the ceremony.

Carabosse enters with her minions, Australian Ballet

The blame for this oversight falls on the Master of Ceremonies, Catallabutte, whom Carabosse torments before exacting her revenge on the King and Queen. This she does by cursing Aurora: she will grow up blessed with all the qualities the fairies have bestowed and loved by all, but on her sixteenth birthday she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die.

The Queen and Carabosse, Bolshoi Ballet

Aurora's parents pled with Carabosse to show mercy but she dismisses them and leaves. The Lilac Fairy now steps forward. She has not yet given the princess her gift, and though she cannot undo the curse, she is able to modify it. Aurora will still prick her finger, but she won't die. Instead, she will sleep for a hundred years, until the spell is broken by the kiss of a handsome prince. Relieved, the court settles back into merriment.

The Lilac Fairy and Carabosse, Pacific Northwest Ballet

Act I opens on the day of Aurora's sixteenth birthday. The court is celebrating, but the King cannot dismiss thoughts of Carabosse's curse. When Catallabutte discovers peasant women knitting nearby - a forbidden activity since the needles may hurt the princess - the King is inclined to punish them but his wife persuades him to spare them. The townspeople perform a waltz with flower garlands, heralding the arrival of Aurora.

Aurora arrives at her birthday party, Queensland Ballet

Aurora is introduced to four suitors, all foreign princes, and they dance the famous Rose Adagio sequence. A cloaked stranger soon interrupts the festivities with a gift for the princess: a spindle. Aurora, who has never seen one before, examines it carefully while her parents and the courtiers all try desperately to take it from her. Aurora pricks her finger, and the curse comes true. She falls into a dead faint, and the cloaked figure reveals herself to be Carabosse.

Svetlana Zakharova as Aurora in the 'Rose Adagio'

The Lilac Fairy appears and comforts the King and Queen, reminding them that Aurora is merely asleep. The princess is taken to her bedchamber, and the Lilac Fairy sets to work making the entire kingdom fall asleep with her. She hides the palace in a thick carpet of vines and brambles, all of which will disappear the moment Aurora wakes.

Aurora collapses, Mara Vinson, Pacific Northwest Ballet

Act II begins one hundred years later, in the deep forest that now surrounds the palace. Prince Desire is out hunting with his friends, upset because of his girlfriend, the Countess. His friends try to cheer him up with a series of lively dances, but their efforts fail and he sends them away. Now alone, he meets the Lilac Fairy, who has chosen him to wake Aurora. She shows the prince a vision of Aurora, and he falls immediately in love with her, begging to be taken to her.

The Lilac Fairy appears to the Prince

The Lilac Fairy guides him to the palace, where Carabosse is waiting for them. Prince Desire defeats her with the help of the Lilac Fairy (later productions like to use the dragon concept from the 1959 Disney movie for this scene). Once the prince makes it inside the castle, he awakens Aurora with a kiss. The rest of the court instantly wakes as well. With the approval of her parents, Aurora agrees to marry Desire.

The spell is broken, Bolshoi Ballet

Act III, predictably enough, is their wedding. The guest list is extensive. The Jewel Fairies arrive, Gold, Silver, Diamond and Sapphire, and of course the guest of honour is the Lilac Fairy. Various other fairy tale characters arrive, including Puss in Boots and the White Cat; Princess Florine and Bluebird; Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf; Cinderella and Prince Charming, and Beauty and the Beast, among others (characters vary by production).

The White Cat and Puss in Boots, The Royal Ballet

Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf

Princess Florine and Bluebird, The Royal Ballet

Aurora and the prince perform a grand pas de deux, and the entire ensemble performs a mazurka. The couple are then married and blessed by the Lilac Fairy. The original production ended with a grand apotheosis, including the sun god Helios and the French King Louis XIV.

Aurora and the Prince, Grand Pas de Deux, The Royal Ballet

On 25 May 1888, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was approached by the Director of the Imperial Theatres of St. Petersburg, Ivan Vsevolozhsky. Vsevolozhsky wanted to talk about a possible adaptation of the story of the nymph Ondine into a ballet. It was decided, however, to use Charles Perrault's La Belle au bois dormant as inspiration. Tchaikovsky immediately agreed to compose for the work, despite the fact that his only previous experience composing for ballet was Swan Lake, which at the time had been (surprisingly to a modern audience) something of an embarrassing flop.

Corps de Ballet, Ballet Arizona

Vsevolozhsky worked on the libretto for the ballet, including a number of other characters from Perrault's works in the final act. For choreography, he naturally turned to the Imperial Ballet's ballet master, Marius Petipa. Petipa had already presided over eleven new or revived ballets for the Imperial Ballet by this period, and was well known as a master. He sent Tchaikovsky a detailed list of musical requirements. The composer worked quickly, beginning initial sketches in the winter of 1888; the orchestration began on 30 May 1889.

The Rose Adagio, Mariinsky Ballet

The Sleeping Beauty premiered on 15 January 1890, at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Riccardo Drigo served as conductor, and Vsevolozhsky, evidently a man of many talents, designed the costumes. The original cast included Feliks Krzesinski (father of ballerina Mathilde Kchessinska) as King Florestan, Giuseppina Cecchetti as the Queen, Carlotta Brianza as Aurora, Marie Petipa as the Lilac Fairy, Enrico Cecchetti (who was famous for character roles) as Carabosse and the Bluebird, Pavel Gerdt as the Prince, and Varvara Nikitina as Princess Florine.

Original 1890 cast in costume for Act I; Carlotta Brianza as Aurora at centre

The ballet met with a much more favourable response than Swan Lake, but Tchaikovsky did not live to see his ballet become famous outside of Russia, dying in 1893. The Moscow Imperial Bolshoi Theatre staged a production in 1899 under ballet master Alexandr Gorsky. By 1903, the ballet was the second most popular ballet in the Imperial Theatres repertoire (in first place was the Marius Petipa and Cesare Pugni collaboration The Pharaoh's Daughter).

Carlotta Brianza as Aurora and Pavel Gerdt as the Prince, in costume for the Grand Procession, Act III, 1890

The 1896 La Scala production in Milan, with Carlotta Brianza reprising her role of Aurora, did not attract much interest, and it wasn't until Diaghilev staged a production in London with his Ballets Russes in 1921, under the title The Sleeping Princess, that it gained much international interest. It steadily gained a permanent place in the repertoire of all major ballet companies. In 1999, the Kirov Ballet (formerly the Mariinsky Ballet) staged a reconstruction of the original 1899 production, which is unfortunately no longer commercially available.

Olivia Cowley as Candide (Fairy of the Crystal Fountain), The Royal Ballet

The Sleeping Beauty is Tchaikovsky's longest ballet, at almost three hours minus intermission times. Modern companies almost always cut it. Apparently, after the premiere, the Russian Tsar Alexander III summoned Tchaikovsky to the Imperial Box, only to comment a mere 'Very nice', which greatly annoyed the composer.

There are now many different versions of The Sleeping Beauty, as companies decide to omit different sections, or to include or exclude different characters. The only major deviations from the original Petipa work are the 1922 production by Diaghilev, who cut the ballet down to 45 minutes for his Ballets Russes and entitled it Aurora's Wedding; and the 1992 production by the Basel Theatre, which reworked the ballet with a new narrative telling the story of Anna Anderson, who had claimed to be the lost Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia. This version is still performed by some Central European companies.

Aurora's Birthday (variation), The Royal Ballet

The ballet is now one of the most famous in the world, a number which also includes Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky's other balletic efforts (this probably would have surprised him). The role of Aurora is a challenging one which can make or break a ballerina's career, particularly with reference to the Rose Adagio. It is hard to imagine a ballet world in which The Sleeping Beauty does not exist.

Here's Svetlana Zakharova in the Rose Adagio:

And here's the Bluebird Pas de Deux from the Mariinsky's 2006 reconstruction (they reconstructed the costumes too!):

Thanks for reading!

- Selene

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