1989 – The Sleeping Beauty

Ballet in three acts and a prologue based on the fairy story by Charles Perrault – Music : Piotr Ilyitch Tchaïkovski – Choreography : Rudolf Nureyev after Marius Petipa

Rudolf Nureyev and the Sleeping Beauty

Whilst following Petipa’s original ballet when he directed his first Sleeping Beauty in 1966 at the Scala Opera House in Milan, Rudolf Nureyev introduced some personnel touches.

“When I was first learning to dance in Ufa, my ballet master, who had belonged to the Kirov ballet, used to tell me that Sleeping Beauty was the “ballet of ballets”. And I couldn’t wait to try it. It was with the Kirov ballet that I later discovered what a glorious delight it was.

Sleeping beauty by Tchaikovsky and Marius Petipa, in fact, represents the pinnacle of classical ballet: ballet then proved itself as one of the major arts. This constitutes a historical event: after Sleeping Beauty, ballet could attract the greatest composers who did not hesitate when it came to working with the choreographers.

I think that each dancer should pray every morning to three icons: Tchaikovsky – God the father, Prokoviev – the Son, and Stravinsky – the Holy Spirit.

It is these three musicians who produced the most important and most daring of works in the repertoire of ballet.

Today Sleeping Beauty is still for me the perfect accomplishment of symphonic ballet. The choreographer is required to find harmony with Tchaikovsky’s score. It is not a question of creating an event with no future with Sleeping Beauty, but of producing a lasting show that supports the excellence of a company.” Rudolf Nureyev in 1989.


la belle au bois dormant Rudolf Noureev

King Florestan’s kingdom is not a charming fantasy, but a Court with its etiquette, its rituals, where the weight of power can be felt. The delightful fantasy of the fairy story gives way to a realistic tale where opposing forces (Carabosse and the Lilac Fairy) wrangle over the destiny of two young people.

Carabosse herself, appears in the guise of a sophisticated woman (who fires her weapon, the needle fatal for Aurora, from the bun set in her wig), whilst the Lilac Fairy represents the young liberal aristocrats.

This version, danced by Carla Fracci and Nureyev himself, was then restaged for the National Ballet of Canada in 1972 with Véronica Tennant though still with the scenery and costumes of Nicholas Giogiadis. Here, Nureyev gives the Prince a notably more elaborate role but keeps Petipa’s choreography for the variations allotted to the female dancers.

Rudolf Nureyev restaged Sleeping Beauty again for the London Festival Ballet in 1975 with Eva Evdokimova alternating with Patricia Ruanne, for the Vienna Opera Ballet in 1980, and finally, for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1989.

A masterpiece that Western Europe were slow to find out about!

It was only in 1921 that European audiences discovered Sleeping Beauty: in London at the Alhambra Theatre, Serge Diaghilev’s “Russian Ballets” performed “The Sleeping Princess”. This was the first time that the complete version of this ballet was danced outside of Russia.

Petipa’s choreography, preserved through the use of Stepanov notation*, was restaged by Nicolas Sergueev, stage manager for the Maryinski Theatre. Bronislava Nijinska, younger sister to Nijinski and also a dancer and choreographer, adjusted several enchaînements and supervised the whole show. She specifically added the “Arabic” and “Chinese” dances, extracts from The Nutcracker, to the divertissement in Act III.
The sumptuous scenery and costumes were designed by Léon Bakst.
Stravinsky orchestrated the music for Aurora’s variation, “the vision”, in Act II and for the symphonic interlude, “panorama”, at the end of the same act; the musical elements for which comprised only the piano score when they arrived in Europe.

Olga Spessivtseva was Aurora, Pierre Vladimirov, the Prince, and Lydia Lopokova alternated with Bronislava Nijinska in the role of the Lilac Fairy. Stanislav Idzikowski proved to be a brilliant Blue Bird. Carlotta Brianza, who had created the title role of Sleeping Beauty in 1890 in Saint Petersburg, played Carabosse this time!

This method for writing down ballet was developed by Vladimir Stepanov in the 1890s, and is still taught at the Vaganova School in St Petersburg. Both Nureyev and Nijinski learnt this system of choreographic notation which is an analytical transposition of movement translated into signs, based on musical notation. It also comprises notes, white, black, and quavers, written out on a stave.

Nicolas Sergueev, stage manager for the Maryinski Theatre during the 1900’s, used this system for committing the ballets in the repertoire to memory.
Most of Marius Petipa’s ballets were transcribed using this process.

After the 1917 revolution, Sergueev fled Russia taking his dance scores with him; they currently belong to the Harvard Theatre Collection in Massachusetts, USA.

It was from these precious documents that the members of the Maryinski Ballet, keen to get back to the roots of their heritage, reconstructed “his” Sleeping Beauty dating from 1890. They used Petipa’s original choreography; scenery and costumes were reproduced according to the originals which are still preserved, or to the stage designs. First night for this production was on 30th April 1999 in Saint-Petersburg. The show was also performed in New York in June 1999 and London in July/August 2000.

It is interesting to realize that this “original version” which lives on one hundred years after its creation, does not seem very different from the versions danced today: it is not just a “curiosity” that has been exhumed or a moving exhibit in a museum.

The structure of the ballet including the choreographic script has not changed, nor has it been subjected to subsequent alterations as is the case for La Bayadère. It contains more pantomime, and the Maryinski dancers, in comparison to dancers from other classical companies of today, seem to have mastered this language particularly well: the mimed gestures are expressive but stylized, they do not try to act “as in daily life”, or “naturally”, or “as for the cinema”; they are coded gestures, made for the theatre, simple, without emphasis and yet neither artificial, nor senseless, as they are carried by the emotions and the desires of the performers.

As regards the ballet itself, the variations for the ballerinas are the same, with several small exceptions, which would prove that the passing down by word of mouth from one performer to another has not distorted the heritage: nor the steps, nor the feelings.

Only the male dancers, in this 1890 version do not have much to do: no variations or ensemble dances. Apart from the Blue Bird and the Cat, the male dancers have no dancing to do. Even the prince has only a few things to do: so the managers of the Maryinski Ballet including the choreographer, Sergueï Vikharev, author of the reconstitution, had to reintroduce the Hunt variation in Act II and that of the Marriage in Act III, just as the modern versions show them to avoid frustration and disappointment on the part of the audience.

And so it is easier to understand the successive revolutions which have taken place since 1900, to add variations and steps to the changes for the male dancers, reappraising male ballet, so that it can “exist” in the classical ballets from the nineteenth century: Nijinski from 1910-1920, Lifar from 1930-1940, Tchaboukiani from 1940-1950 and Nureyev as of the 1960’s.

Learn more

The Sleeping Beauty – in the same production style as the 1921 “Russian Ballets” – was first performed in London in 1939 by an English company; the Sadler’s Wells Ballet directed by Ninette de Valois. Danced by Margot Fonteyn and Robert Helpmann, the costumes and scenery were by Nadia Benois. Nicolas Sergueev was, once again, responsible for the staging and the choreography; first night was on the 2nd February 1939. This production was to be restaged in Covent Garden for the reopening of the Royal Opera House after the Second World War. The cast was the same, but the scenery and costumes by Oliver Messel were new; first night was on the 20th February 1946.

Different versions of “Sleeping Beauty”

Versions by Rudolf Nureyev:

1966 – “La Bella addormentata nel bosco”
Scala Opera Ballet in Milan
Scenery and costumes by Nicholas Georgiadis
First night was the 22nd September 1966 at the Scala Opera House in Milan with Carla Fracci and Rudolf Nureyev.
(New production in January 1994 – after Nureyev’s death – with scenery and costumes by Franca Squarciapino – restaged by Patrice Bart and Patricia Ruanne, with Viviana Durante and Manuel Legris)

1972 – “Sleeping Beauty”
National Ballet of Canada / Toronto
Scenery and costumes by Nicholas Georgiadis.
First night was the 1st September 1972 at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa with Veronica Tenant and Rudolf Nureyev.

1975 – “Sleeping Beauty”
London Festival Ballet
Scenery and costumes by Nicholas Georgiadis
First night was the 16th April 1975 at the London Coliseum with Eva Evdokimova and Rudolf Nureyev.
The show was also performed in January 1976 at the Palais des Sports in Paris with Eva Evdokimova alternating with Patricia Ruanne.

1980 – “Dornröschen”
Vienna Staatsoper Ballet
Scenery and costumes by Nicholas Georgiadis
First night was the 15th October 1980 at the Vienna Opera House with Gisela Cech and Rudolf Nureyev.

1989 – “La Belle au bois dormant”
Paris Opera Ballet
Scenery and costumes by Nicholas Georgiadis
The “First night” was originally planned for the 17th March (Rudolf’s 51st birthday) but, cancelled due to a strike, it was postponed until the following day, the 18th March 1989 at the Palais Garnier with Elisabeth Maurin and Jean-Yves Lormeau for matinee performances, and Elisabeth Platel and Manuel Legris for evening performances.
(New production in January 1997 with scenery by Ezio Frigerio and costumes by Franca Squarciapino – restaged by Patrice Bart and Patricia Ruanne at the Bastille Opera House with Elisabeth Platel and Manuel Legris.
NB: E. Platel was injured during the 1st Act and was replaced by Karin Averty in Acts II and III)

1992 – “Dornröschen”
Berlin Staatsoper Ballet
Scenery and costumes by Nicholas Georgiadis
First night was the 21st February 1992 at the Berlin Staatsoper with Steffi Scherzer and Raimondo Rebeck plus, for this one performance, Rudolf Nureyev as Carabosse!

1999 – “Princessa Ruusunen”
Finnish National Ballet in Helsinki
Scenery by Anneli Qveflander
Costumes by Erika Turunen
Ballet restaged by Patricia Ruanne
First night was the 26th March 1999 at the Helsinki Opera House, Finland