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date: 30 July 2021

Sleeping Princesses and Beauties: Lessons from Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty (2015)

Abstract and Keywords

This article demonstrates that in his production of Sleeping Beauty for the American Ballet Theatre, Alexei Ratmansky proposes a softer style of ballet and reintegrates pantomime into the fabric of the ballet. His use of a choreographic text raises questions of “authenticity” and the intentions of Petipa, and how a notational text may collide with nontextual Sleeping Beauty traditions developed since the ballet’s premiere in 1890. This production also draws from Bakst’s gorgeous designs for the Ballets Russes London production of 1921–1922. By incorporating choreographic and design elements from the ballet’s history into his own creation, Ratmansky shows not only homage to past traditions, but also his own contemporary aesthetic. The article asserts that what emerges is an affirmation of the living tradition of this ballet that continues to instruct us even as we are challenged to consider new meaning in the older practices of this foundational ballet.

Keywords: The Sleeping Beauty, ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Petipa, Tchaikovsky, Alexei Ratmansky, Ballets Russes, Léon Bakst, pantomime, choreographic notation, Nikolai Sergeyev, The Sleeping Princess


The Sleeping Beauty “requires … a penetrating understanding of its essence as conceived by its creator, and careful, thoughtful cultivation of the precious grain which it contains.”1

The time has come … to clear away some of the cobwebs (or lilac brambles) clinging to our view of the many Sleeping Beauty productions since the first in January 1890. That is the view that an “authentic” production of The Sleeping Beauty exists, waiting to be revealed, which when found will render all others inferior. On the contrary, each subsequent production enriches the larger tradition of this Petipa/Tchaikovsky work, a living tradition now spanning a century and a quarter. Further, each addition to the Sleeping Beauty tradition cannot but reflect its own times and circumstances and the experiences of those involved in it. This holds true as well for Alexei Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty, which debuted in 2015 with the American Ballet Theatre (ABT). In Ratmansky’s presentation of an older ballet style, enabled by the 1903 choreographic notations of Nikolai Sergeyev, the familiar ballet suddenly appears new: familiar, but different. It is revelatory to behold how fresh and alive this Sleeping Beauty is, how contemporary, yet, part of the newness flows from Ratmansky’s loving reverence for this ballet’s largely forgotten history.

The presence of the past looms large in this Sleeping Beauty, in which the choreography emulates the style of Petipa and the décor reflects that of the Ballets Russes 1921–1922 version, The Sleeping Princess. Yet Ratmansky notes how his backward glance affected his own aesthetics. “Looking at the notations changed my taste,” he said, “it is such a beautiful and sophisticated way of dancing, especially for the women, who always look so graceful and feminine in Petipa’s choreography.”2 If Ratmansky did not explicitly call this look to the past a personal epiphany, another twentieth-century artist did: Igor Stravinsky, who worked with Sergei Diaghilev on The Sleeping Princess. The composer explained the Janus-like nature of his own “discovery of the past”: “It was a backward look, of course—the first of many love affairs in that direction—but it was a look in the mirror, too…. People who had never heard of, or cared about, the originals cried ‘sacrilege’: ‘The classics are ours. Leave the classics alone.’ To them all my answer was the same: ‘You “respect,” but I love’.”3

Diaghilev put it another way. After habituating European audiences to avant-garde ballets such as Parade and The Rite of Spring, critics considered his presentation of The Sleeping Princess in London a volte-face. (It was also a financial failure that nearly destroyed the Ballets Russes.) Diaghilev pushed back against the implied accusation that The Sleeping Princess was, for him, a betrayal of modernism. At a lunch table with journalists critical of The Sleeping Princess, the impresario reportedly said, “Ah! Well … one returns to tutus and the classical dance? … Cubism, Futurism and the like are finished…. One returns to the good tradition….—But no, for heaven’s sake, one does not return. […] One evolves toward neoclassicism, as Picasso evolves toward Ingres, as … My God, is one still explaining such things? … Salmon, caviar?”4

Yes, one is still explaining. The point Diaghilev and Stravinsky made is driven home in Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty, which is every bit as contemporary as Stravinsky’s neoclassical works or as Picasso’s “evolution” toward Ingres. Despite the choreographer’s stated aim to “reveal the real Petipa” and “stay with what was written,” by following the Sergeyev choreographic notation,5 Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty reveals much about the young choreographer. The new Beauty abounds in Ratmansky’s love of narrative and gesture, his sensitivity to musico-choreographic relationships, and his delight in a more “graceful and feminine” ballet style than today’s usual virtuosic athleticism. As is his wont, Ratmansky attends to small details and injects delicate humor on occasion. And by drawing heavily from the Léon Bakst designs for the Ballets Russes Sleeping Princess, Ratmansky’s production pays homage to that twentieth-century contribution to the ballet’s tradition.

Ratmansky’s rapprochement with The Sleeping Beauty arises from his own artistic vision and experience. Ratmansky graduated from the Bolshoi Ballet School in 1986, where he absorbed many of the Soviet-era traditions of The Sleeping Beauty. He witnessed the fall of the Soviet Union and was for a time the artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet; he has also danced and choreographed outside Russia for much of his career. (He now resides in New York.) So it is of note that he turns aside from the notion of reconstructing the 1890 premiere, knowing full well its impossibility. In fact, the term “reconstruction” is a misnomer; Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty is more properly a re-creation. He, the dancers, and the lighting and décor teams have created something new, yet something now part of the living tradition of The Sleeping Beauty ballet. And that “something” (no matter what one calls it) imparts some very interesting lessons.

One such lesson is that it behooves us to move beyond analyzing how Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty stacks up against another production: the Mariinsky/Kirov Ballet’s “new/old” production of 1999. Though Ratmansky examined the same Sergeyev notations as the artistic directors of the 1999 Kirov production, he does not claim more than that his production “is the closest we can get to the ‘authentic’ text.”6 Others have charted the differences between the 1999 Kirov Sleeping Beauty and the choreographic notation and the political controversies influencing choreographic choices for that production.7 Yet a comparison of the 2015 Beauty’s choreography with Sergeyev’s notation will only take us so far.

The Sergeyev notations are indeed the best record of the choreographic content of the original Sleeping Beauty, but they are not without problems. Sergeyev wrote them more than a dozen years after the ballet’s premiere, while preparations were underway for a 1904 Mariinsky revival, and important changes had already occurred. Carlotta Brianza and Enrico Cecchetti had left the Mariinsky, and younger dancers took over the leading roles from Marie Petipa and Pavel Gerdt. Sergeyev notated two different versions of the Lilac Fairy variation in the Prologue. The Sarabande in act 3 was given at the premiere (one reviewer mentioned it as “fiery and colorful”8), but at some point before 1903 it was cut. And Sergeyev did not notate the 1890 version of the Prince’s variation in act 3; he notated a more virtuosic replacement, which may or may not have been devised by Petipa. Some numbers are notated with extreme care and others in evident haste. Some of the notations are open to interpretation or do not specify head and arm movements. The pantomime gestures are indicated in prose and say what to communicate, but not how to do it, leaving interpretation to the performer or to Ratmansky.

The Sleeping Beauty is more than a sum of its parts; the notation, after all, specifies steps and gestures and does not link them to each other or to the music. The choreographer or artistic director supplies the preparations for, and the transitions between, the pas, depending on his or her experience and imagination. Our critical reception concerns the creative work as a whole, as it is Ratmansky’s artistry and judgment that compel our interest. And the man’s artistry is, of course, uniquely his own, but it is also part of a larger stream of constantly evolving ballet tradition. As T. S. Eliot wrote in his 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” the artist must “surrender … himself wholly to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.”9 Ratmansky the artist and his Sleeping Beauty embody this beautifully.

Another lesson of this Beauty is how naturally the look of The Sleeping Princess, with only a few selected parts of the Mariinsky original, fits this production. The costumes of the fairies, Carabosse, the Countess, and Prince Désiré derive from designs of Bakst. So too do those of the King and Queen, and Aurora’s Rose Adagio dress as well as her act 3 sunburst dress in the processional. The Lilac Fairy’s costume in the prologue is newly designed, but for the rest of the ballet it resembles the original Mariinsky one. In Ratmansky’s act 3 processional (to music of the polacca; he eliminates the marche), he includes just for fun some of the characters added by Diaghilev and Bakst, ones not original to earlier Russian productions: Bluebeard and Sister Anne; the Mandarin and the Porcelain Princesses; and Schéhérazade, the Shah, and his Brother. In The Sleeping Princess they were given scènes de caractère, but here they simply join the cavalcade of fairy-tale characters celebrating the royal marriage. The ABT production references several of the Bakst set designs, further strengthening the visual link to the earlier Ballets Russes production.

Diaghilev’s production of The Sleeping Princess, the first outside Russia to rely on Nikolai Sergeyev and his notations, marked the beginning of the ballet’s westward journey. It also marked the bifurcation of Sleeping Beauty traditions between East and West, as nearly all the Russian artists involved in the London production were now cut off from the motherland. Since Ratmansky has a foot on both east and west branches of the tradition, it is worth examining some of the ballet’s Russian history. Sergeyev had been régisseur (rehearsal director) at the Mariinsky from 1903 to 1917 and lost his position after the February Revolution of 1917. He traveled to Moscow, perhaps to seek employment, and a year later fled Petrograd, as it was then called, for Europe. Sergeyev brought with him more than twenty choreographic notations of the Mariinsky ballet repertoire, as well as numerous orchestral scores, instrument parts, and répétiteurs (rehearsal scores).

When Diaghilev decided in 1921 to stage The Sleeping Beauty, he faced two important challenges: locating the full orchestral score of the ballet and finding someone with knowledge of the ballet’s choreography and staging. Sergeyev provided both. Fortunately he was nearby, in Paris, with the invaluable, purloined scores.10 There he had joined a community of displaced Russian dancers and other artists. Diaghilev hired Sergeyev and his wife, the former imperial dancer Maria Poplavskaya, in August 1921, to help with The Sleeping Princess. The impresario engaged others from Paris for that endeavor: Carlotta Brianza, the first Aurora, to mime Carabosse; Vera Trefilova and Lubov Egorova, former imperial dancers, to alternate with others as Aurora; and Vera Sudeikina, the actress and future wife of Igor Stravinsky, to mime the role of the Queen. Léon Bakst, costume and scenic designer for The Sleeping Princess, also lived in Paris at the time. (Bronislava Nijinska had recently escaped Kiev, was “found” in Vienna, and was engaged in September 1921.)

After The Sleeping Princess closed in February 1922, Sergeyev took a position in Riga, though at least one person advocated for his return to the Soviet Union. This was the imperial ballerina Olga Spessivtseva, who had danced the role of Aurora for the Ballets Russes. In a letter to her great admirer, Akim Volynsky, the ballet critic who had begun the Russian School of Ballet (later the State Choreographic Technical College) a few years earlier, she wrote: “You know very well that many of Petipa’s ballets have been lost…. I saw Nikolai Sergeyev abroad. This man has in his keeping as a treasure a set of very detailed notations of the major Petipa ballets.” Spessivtseva, seeing the sorry state of affairs in Petrograd after the revolution, realized the importance of Sergeyev’s notations, as well as the man’s ability to stage the notated ballets. “Akim L’vovich,” she pleaded, “should it all be forgotten and lost at this literally critical, literally historical moment for ballet? These are diamonds of the first water, by some miracle preserved for us, and they are absolutely essential for the preservation of ballet on the contemporary stage. You used to tell me that sometimes an old authentic manuscript could change the course of history for the whole nation…. So, how about these diamonds from the greatest master of the choreographic art? Could they not save the art of ballet today?” Unfortunately, sentiment had so turned against Sergeyev personally that the press criticized Volynsky for even raising the question of Sergeyev’s return.11

As Spessivtseva had written, it really did seem that an “old authentic manuscript could change the course of history” for a nation—but in this case the nation was Great Britain, not Russia. Sergeyev’s expertise, and his music and choreographic scores, were not without fault, but nonetheless they were crucial to the development of British classical ballet and of the Western strand of Sleeping Beauty traditions. In the 1930s Sergeyev transmitted the Petipa versions of Giselle, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and Coppélia in productions by the Camargo Society and the Vic-Wells/Sadler’s Wells Ballet. At the beginning of World War II Sergeyev taught at the Ballet School at Sadler’s Wells, dispensing imperial-style technique. He joined Mona Inglesby’s new International Ballet troupe in 1941 and spent the last ten years of his life teaching and staging the Mariinsky ballets from his notations.

The Sleeping Beauty ballet in particular became a cornerstone in the foundation of British ballet. By the end of the 1930s Ninette de Valois decided she had the financial and technical resources—and the space—to mount for the first time a full-length Sleeping Princess, as they called it. Like Diaghilev before her, she turned to Sergeyev. (In a feature, The Dancing Times dubbed him “The Man Who Remembers.”) A nineteen-year-old Margot Fonteyn led the cast of young, talented dancers. However, even though the outbreak of war stunted de Valois’s plans, The Sleeping Princess continued to be performed—without male courtiers. Finally, in 1946, while London was recovering from the war, de Valois chose The Sleeping Beauty to inaugurate her troupe’s move to the newly renovated Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. The opening was a triumphant gala, headlined “A Royal Occasion” by The Times, and attended by British royalty, dignitaries, and members of the arts community. “When the great curtain went up again at last, it was more than auspicious; it was festive and it symbolized the rolling back of some of our oppressions from our minds.”12 The Sleeping Beauty, again with Margot Fonteyn and Robert Helpmann, but new décor, was now a fixture in the repertoire of the troupe that would later become the Royal Ballet.

Mona Inglesby’s International Ballet mounted a full-length Sleeping Princess in 1948 that toured the provinces, often performing in large cinema halls seating thousands. As part of the Festival of Britain in 1951, the troupe was invited to present their repertoire, including the Sergeyev-assisted Russian ballets, for six weeks of the inaugural season of Royal Festival Hall. Inglesby wrote in her memoirs, “Even now I can still vividly recall the strong perfume of the Garden Scene in Act I of The Sleeping Princess which greeted one immediately upon entering Festival Hall.”13

With Sergeyev and his choreographic notations ensconced in Europe, the Sleeping Beauty traditions developed differently behind the Iron Curtain. (The essayist and philosopher Vasily Rozanov wrote presciently in his 1918 essay, “The Apocalypse of Our Time”: “With clanging, creaking, and squeaking, an iron curtain is lowering over Russian History. ‘The performance is over.’ The audience got up. ‘Time to put on your fur coats and go home.’ We looked around, but the fur coats and homes were missing.”14) Even in grim post-revolutionary conditions, The Sleeping Beauty continued to be performed at the former Mariinsky Theatre, by emaciated dancers wearing sweaters under their outfits, due to scarce food and heating fuel. The Sleeping Beauty managed to survive Soviet politics; fortunately, a rewritten 1924 scenario of the “Sunny Commune,” which ended with the monarchy overthrown and Aurora anointed the “wonderful dawn of Universal Revolution,” never reached the stage.15

Conditions gradually improved, and Soviet leaders recognized the important patrimony of imperial-era ballet. Teachers and artistic directors of the various academies, and national and regional companies, shaped their own Sleeping Beauty traditions in the Soviet Union. Sergeyev and his choreographic notations were forgotten as styles changed. In particular, the Vaganova school (which eventually replaced the abolished Imperial Ballet School) moved Russian ballet style in the twentieth century toward what Ratmansky called “broad athletic dancing, no mannerisms, little grace and sophistication, but heroic attack, [and] acrobatic partnering.”16 The Sleeping Beauty production of 1952 by Konstantin Sergeyev (no relation to Nikolai), into which he introduced much new choreography, affected—and continues to affect—the expectations of performers and audiences alike. As Doug Fullington put it, the K. Sergeyev production is “in the Kirov’s blood … [and] choreographic attribution of previous Kirov productions is further complicated by the fact that [it] is in itself a derivation.”17

One would think that more than two hundred pages of early twentieth-century, handwritten, arcane choreographic notation would be the unlikeliest of controversial subjects, but one would be wrong. When Sergei Vikharev, Makhar Vaziev, and Pavel Gershenzon of the Kirov Ballet examined the N. Sergeyev notations in Russia for the first time since 1918, they were surprised to discover how far many Russian Sleeping Beauty traditions had drifted from the notated version. For one thing, K. Sergeyev had excised most of the mime gestures, which were written clearly in prose in the choreographic notation. But many of the other dances had been revised over the years. The very idea of returning to the notated choreography called into question the curatorship of the Petipa legacy in the Soviet Union and Russia. It also awakened long dormant animosity toward the unforgiven defector, N. Sergeyev. At a 1998 conference celebrating Petipa’s 180th birthday, “people were up in arms when it became clear that the [Mariinsky] Theater was undertaking a restaging of Beauty using the Sergeyev documents,” said Gershenzon to Vikharev and Vaziev. “[People said,] ‘That is no document! It can’t be trusted! Nikolai Sergeyev was an awful person; the dancers did not like him!’” Gershenzon cited as reasons for such a strong reaction the “usual Soviet suspicion regarding emigrants and the vexation that an opportunity for a doctoral dissertation had fallen into foreign hands.”18

Vikharev and Vaziev discuss in the 1998 interview the weaknesses in the changes K. Sergeyev and Lopukhov made to The Sleeping Beauty and the “possibility to get closer to Petipa’s original” by deciphering the notations.19 But in the end, they could not privilege the Sergeyev notations over the ingrained Soviet-era ways of dancing the ballet. Fullington’s analysis of the 1999 Kirov production gives numerous instances in which the performed pas diverge from what is clearly stated in the notation and often favor the K. Sergeyev choreography—raising the issue of how closely the Kirov team followed or even consulted the notations.20 But as interesting as this is to the specialist, performance-practice research yields only a description of the differences or posited congruences between productions. Pace Fullington, who wrote, “the importance of the Kirov’s new Beauty [and Ratmansky’s Beauty, presumably] rests on how well its collaborators recreated the original sets, costumes, music, and choreography.”21

The more intriguing question of why certain choices were made is left on the table.


“Sergeyev is my hero.”22

Without the guidance of Nikolai Sergeyev’s notations, Ratmansky’s re-creation of The Sleeping Beauty would have been very different. Certainly Spessivtseva’s letter highlights Sergeyev’s importance to the preservation of Russian ballets that may have been otherwise lost or forgotten. Yet after Sergeyev’s death in 1951 and the subsequent demise of the International Ballet, the notations rested quietly in storage, and the man became a side note in British ballet history. The 1999 Kirov Sleeping Beauty changed all that. As controversial as that production was—and subsequent artistic management mothballed it—Ratmansky saw it as “a huge inspiration. I felt it didn’t work 100%, but opened the door that this notation can be used, and [that] there is a lot of information that could bring back the original steps.”23 It opened the door, that is, to Ratmansky’s full consideration of the choreographic text and its implications.

The 1999 and the 2015 Sleeping Beauty productions are the only recent ones to utilize the archaic Stepanov notation. This fairly unusual circumstance in the world of ballet—consulting this notation in re-creating a late-imperial Russian ballet—raises some interesting ontological ideas about the relationships among this work, its choreographic text, and performance of the work as transmitted through the text. It raises questions of how the choreographic text relates to our concept of the work and how Ratmansky translates the text’s information into a performative work of art. It also raises the question of the role of the Sergeyev text in Ratmansky’s re-creation vis-à-vis the non-notated traditions, those passed from teacher to student.

First, some definitions. The concept of work (in the sense of Werk, the German philosophical idea that developed in the nineteenth century) may be taken here as “the Petipa/Tchaikovsky Sleeping Beauty of January 1890 performed at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia.” A group of people—Ivan Vsevolozhky, Petipa, and Tchaikovsky—conceived the work called The Sleeping Beauty. In addition, imperial painters rendered the scenery, seamstresses sewed the costumes, and soloists may have influenced choreography (particularly variations) and pantomime. There are several texts pertaining to the work. Tchaikovsky composed the musical score in 1888–1889; it was revised before December 30, 1889, the date of the répétition générale. Other important texts include the répétiteur (a two-violin arrangement used for rehearsals), lost in the early 1980s but not before Roland John Wiley had examined it; Petipa’s instructions to Tchaikovsky; and a separate document called the balletmaster’s plan. Sergeyev’s choreographic notation dates from 1903 or 1904, and what little survives of A. Gorsky’s choreographic notation dates from 1899. The texts are physical objects, but problematic with regard to omissions, inconsistencies, and the like. Further, they do not fully capture the work. And in the case of The Sleeping Beauty, the choreographic notation exists in tandem with a non-notated, living tradition. Performance of the ballet, whether based on the notations or not, is ephemeral. As the critic Marcia Siegel wrote, dance is “an event that disappears in the very act of materializing.”24

The idea that a definitive Sleeping Beauty work exists somewhere in the ether (like data bytes stored in the cloud) is as powerful as it is troublesome. Powerful, because critics or interpreters may claim a special understanding of the composer’s (perceived) intentions.25 Choreographers, too, may invoke their “authority” to justify creating something they perceive as following “Petipa’s intentions.” Fyodor Lopukhov commented later on his choreographic additions to the Mariinsky’s 1922 Sleeping Beauty: “In supplying [dances that had been cut],” he wrote, “I did my best to preserve the style of Petipa so that no one could tell the difference between what was set by him and what by me.”26 Lopukhov evidently felt entitled by his “authority” to uphold, present, or otherwise create dances “in the style of Petipa”—judging from his withering criticism, elsewhere in the article, of two other Soviet versions of The Sleeping Beauty. “Authority,” self-anointed or otherwise, becomes prescriptive. Further, the presence of “authorities” implies that there is something to preserve and curate and to be faithful to. Using the choreographic texts to “return to The Sleeping Beauty some of its authenticity,” as Vikharev said, is another subtle form of invocation.27

Ratmansky himself raises the idea of intentions: “Honestly, I just can’t stand seeing productions of the classics any more, because I know how far it is from Petipa’s intentions.”28 Giving the man the benefit of the doubt, he probably means “my understanding of Petipa’s intentions.” But we must acknowledge that whatever constitutes his or anyone else’s “understanding of Petipa’s intentions” is contingent. It depends on his understanding and use of the available texts. It also depends on training, upbringing, and what may be his evolving artistic view of The Sleeping Beauty’s traditions. And this is precisely what invigorates Ratmansky’s production—not the litany of steps or the degree of leg elevation and not even his adherence to the choreographic notations (though that is of great interest).

In some sense Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty spans the ballet’s East-West split and its textual and non-notated traditions. As a student of history, Ratmansky has delved into the ballet’s traditions; as a choreographer, he has reached beyond replicating the steps in the notation. Bronislava Nijinska, who knew the Stepanov system and knew the limitations of Sergeyev and his notations for The Sleeping Beauty, wrote: “Long ago the school of classical dance discovered the basic movement (pas) of dancing, but the life of these movements is purely mechanical…. The school of classical dance teaches only separate pas—movements. The secret of thinking and acting between positions—Movement—lies hidden from ballet masters, dancers, and choreographers alike [today].”29 Ratmansky understands what Nijinska was talking about. Soon after the New York premiere of ABT’s Sleeping Beauty, Ratmansky said, “I started with the [Sergeyev] notation. Everything is there in the notation, including the mime.” But then he pointed out that, “Of course, the notation needs to be read, it needs interpretation to turn it into art.”30 And there it is: the proper goal of any Sleeping Beauty production is to “turn it into art.”


“It takes courage to bend your knees in arabesques.”31

As soon as the curtain rises, Florestan’s courtiers stride briskly onstage to the equally brisk tempo, announcing that something is different about this Sleeping Beauty. It doesn’t dawdle; as Ratmansky says, his ballet has “faster pirouettes, less time spent in the preparations, no walking from one corner to another.”32 Without having to slow the music for a big preparation or an extended balance, Tchaikovsky’s music flows easily. That is one outcome of Ratmansky’s study of the notations; he shows us how far contemporary performance style has changed from the style of late imperial Russian ballet practice.

And that sense of style infuses every step of his Sleeping Beauty. The extended leg is lower, the cou-de-pied in pirouette is lower, and it varies from ankle to half-calf to knee, giving more nuance and articulation. Most of the chaîné turns are on demi-pointe (and in Aurora’s wedding variation they are notated on full pointe, a lovely touch that demonstrates her development). The knee is bent more often, softening the lines. Per the notation, Aurora’s entrance pas, the petite batterie, accentuates the coltish and playful nature of the young princess—dare one suggest, as Petipa intended. Further, Ratmansky has turned away from the sharp attack, a ballet style developed by Lopukhov in Russia and Balanchine in the United States in the twentieth century. It is a style to which many audiences are accustomed. By contrast, in Ratmansky’s hands the dancing becomes more graceful and sophisticated, as he put it. The absence of the sharp attack and tautness of line makes watching The Sleeping Beauty less about ticking off the successful technical demands and more about seeing a depth of storytelling and characterization woven into each number—through gesture, ballet pas, and even facial expression, timed impeccably to Tchaikovsky’s music.

The Rose Adagio in act 1 is one such number. Known for its technical demands on Aurora, particularly her unsupported balances on pointe while maintaining attitude en arrière, in this version the characterization of the young princess comes to the fore. Ratmansky reinstates the gestural material (it is sometimes omitted) during the extended harp introduction to the adagio. The presence of the harp timbre, which represents the Lilac Fairy’s protective powers throughout the ballet, shows that even in her absence the fairy guards Aurora and the matters of the kingdom. And the royal matters are important indeed, as Aurora’s parents are asking her to choose among four suitors. Following the choreographic notation, Aurora finishes her entrée pas in front of her mother. Sergeyev wrote in his notation, “The Queen kisses her daughter on the forehead and says, [‘]You will become tired if you keep dancing like that[’].” After Aurora runs toward her father, “The King kisses Aurora and says, [‘]You have grown up, you are beautiful, here are four suitors who love you and want to marry you. I give my consent, but you have to give them your answer yourself[’].”33 King Florestan indicates each of the princes, and each gesture coincides with a harp flourish. Last he indicates Aurora, to the highest and most delicate harp flourish. Aurora nods her assent. Thus the pantomime as Ratmansky stages it works with Tchaikovsky’s music to heighten the meaning of what we hear and see.

Aurora’s act 1 variation is another number that gains clarity in Ratmansky’s production. It is Aurora’s first solo and consists of a series of repeated, and what appear to be fairly elementary, pas (piqué arabesques, ronds de jambe, pirouettes, jetés, and others). Yet the placement of all parts of the body—legs, torso, head, and shoulders—must be precise, as in a technical exercise. In Ratmansky’s version, the variation is full of rich and understated moments that express Aurora’s character and the context of the narrative here. During the introductory bars, played by solo violin, the four suitors enter with Aurora and invite her to dance (using a pantomime gesture with arms curved above the head, hands gently milling). Aurora approaches and bows toward her parents, then indicates graciously each of the four princes, who stand two on each side, as they admire her beauty and grace. These are Ratmansky’s details. Aurora’s movement across the stage is indicated as a spiral in the notations (see figure 1), but Ratmansky adds her explicit acknowledgment of her filial ties and what might be a betrothal.

Sleeping Princesses and BeautiesLessons from Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty (2015)

Figure 1 Choreographic notation for Aurora’s act 1 variation. Upper left portion shows Aurora’s opening spiral movement on the stage. The upper right section shows the first sequence of the variation, Aurora’s series of arabesques and croisés. (The line from “e” to “f,” with # sign indicating en pointe, can easily be recognized as Aurora’s bourrées backward to the right rear of the stage.)

[Credit line: Nikolai Sergeev Dance Notations and Music Scores for Ballets, 1888–1944, Houghton Library, Harvard University (MS Thr 245 204 seq. 97).]

The variation proper begins and comprises five sequences. The first is a series of piqué arabesques: with each one, Aurora addresses a different “compass point”: at right angles to the audience, right and left, and straight toward the audience; call them west, east, and south. No matter the orientation of the arabesque or which leg supports it, Aurora’s resting position is always fourth position croisé, either southeast or southwest, and the torso is turned to the corner opposite from the legs. After seven such arabesques, she bourrées backward, diagonally, to the right rear corner.

In the second sequence, Aurora travels on the diagonal toward the audience, en pointe, while executing a series of fourteen low ronds de jambe. Ratmansky noticed in the notation that “with each rond de jambe she changes épaulement three times”34—that is, the head moves from the ballerina’s lower right, to center, and then to upper left. After each pas her gaze finishes in the direction of her parents, reinforcing the filial link. For the first eight ronds de jambe, Aurora fingers the hem of her dress as specified in the notation. This gesture, perhaps, had already been lost in post-revolutionary Russia. Writing in October 1922 from Petrograd, Akim Volynsky commented in his essay on The Sleeping Beauty that Olga Spessivtseva “has not spent a year abroad in vain,” learning the role of Aurora for the Ballets Russes production. When she danced it at the Mariinsky upon her return, Volynsky noted that in Aurora’s variation, “with her fingers she slightly raises the edge of her dress…. I am convinced that we are dealing here with one of [Enrico] Cecchetti’s recommendations.”35 It was more likely one of Sergeyev’s, who was following his notations.

Aurora begins the third sequence in fifth position; she bends forward and with an upward sweep of her arms hops backward (changement) en pointe, in a diagonal line. To a flourish in the music, Aurora finishes with a pirouette ending in fourth position. Each resting fourth position addresses a different corner of the stage, thereby establishing a choreographic link with the first sequence. After three sets of these backward hops/pirouette, she travels forward on the diagonal, executing ballonnés à terre to finish the musical phrase. Next, the four suitors arrange themselves in a square. Aurora bourrées toward each prince in turn, finishing in either attitude front or en arrière.

In the fifth and final sequence Aurora inscribes a large spiral with a series of low jeté turns, followed by chaîné turns on demi-pointe, seeming to gather and wrap up all the various compass points in a burst of energy and motion. (The music changes from Allegro moderato to Allegro vivace; Tchaikovsky literally condenses and speeds up the melodic pitches of the first theme.) In choreographic terms the finale is linked to the opening spiral gesture: it traverses roughly the same parts of the stage, and in the notation the two spirals are nearly mirror images (see figure 2). The contrast between the beginning and ending of the variation shows in a nutshell how Aurora’s graceful acknowledgment of her parents and her suitors (in the first spiral, at the beginning of the variation) is transformed, through dance (in the last spiral), into a tour de force—and an embodiment of her high spirits. In the larger context of the ballet Aurora is still a novice. This is conveyed in the abecedarian articulation of careful placement and position of legs, torso, head, and arms throughout the variation. But what is at heart an étude modulates into a thing of beauty. Ratmansky, and Petipa, have revealed in this variation Aurora’s emergent womanhood through gesture, gaze, and nuanced choreography.

Sleeping Princesses and BeautiesLessons from Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty (2015)

Figure 2 Final frame of choreographic notation for Aurora’s act 1 variation, showing Aurora’s movement across the stage.

[Credit line: Nikolai Sergeev Dance Notations and Music Scores for Ballets, 1888–1944, Houghton Library, Harvard University (MS Thr 245 204 seq. 98).]

Ratmansky adds touches of humor at times, such as his handling of the contrast between the nobles’ courtly dance and the peasants’ farandole, in the hunt scene. After a game of blind man’s buff, the Countess suggests a dance to lift the spirits of Prince Désiré. It is a stately minuet, emphasizing restraint and formal manners. Next the peasants request permission to dance. In the vigorous “low style” farandole, they move with gusto and joy. As notated, the nobles watch the farandole unfold from the sidelines. Then they form arches under which the snaking lines wind. Toward the end the nobles form their own circles to the right and left of the action in the center. (After all, there wouldn’t be nobles without peasants.) In Ratmansky’s interpretation, their pallid, half-hearted attempts to join the farandole contrast with the genuine fun of the peasants. The nobles just don’t get it, and it’s gently humorous to see them try.

Throughout the ballet mime gestures combine with Ratmansky’s softer dance style, often overlapping in complementary ways. In the original Sleeping Beauty, and here, the narrative is deeply embedded in the choreography. There is not always a clear line between “pure dance” and pas d’action. In the prologue, for example, each of the six fairies blesses the child with her individual attribute, such as wisdom, generosity, and the ability to sing. In the world of ballet, the fairies bequeath to Aurora their choreographic steps, which she later incorporates (at least in part) into her own variations. But in addition several of the fairy variations contain gestures; the baby Aurora, when grown, will wear a beautiful necklace and will have a beautiful face, beautiful arms, and beautiful legs. And later in Aurora’s variation in the vision scene, Aurora seems to stroke her face, miming that she has become beautiful.

No only beautiful, Aurora has also grown assertive. It is the Princess who taps Désiré on his shoulder and beckons him to search for her, while the Lilac Fairy and nymphs form barriers. In the sequence in which Aurora and the Prince dash through the double line of nymphs (on the diagonal), Aurora’s arm gestures coincide with the upward flourishes of music. This is not in the notation; it is Ratmansky’s addition, and it advances the view that Aurora has an opinion in the matter of whom she will marry. At the end of the adagio the Prince conveys through gesture to Lilac, but not yet to the Princess, his love for Aurora and his intention to marry her (indicating first his heart, then the ring finger of his left hand).

This mimed conversation about marriage is put on hold while Aurora and the kingdom awaken and celebrate, with a series of divertissements based on other fairy tales. Aurora and the Prince resume the question of love and marriage with mime in their Grand pas de deux. The Sergeyev notation specifies that certain mime gestures be timed to pauses in the adagio music. At the first pause, the Prince indicates his ring finger: “Time to get married.” But Aurora’s nearly simultaneous response is, “Let’s dance” (curved arms milling above her head). She is not quite ready. At a later pause she mimes that she loves him and finally points to her ring finger. It is an astonishing sequence that, as articulated in the ABT version, shows Aurora’s insistence on love (dance, partnering) before marriage. The Prince must wait until she assents, and he does.36 These details sharpen the idea that Aurora has developed from a playful teenager learning her steps (as noted in her act 1 variation) into a mature woman who has mastered them. These gestural details strengthen the narrative line of the ballet by tying the Grand pas de deux to the vision scene, in which the two first meet.

There are other lessons to learn from the careful reintegration of pantomime into The Sleeping Beauty. “With the mime added in,” said Ratmansky, “we see that the story is much more about the two ladies.”37 One wonders if Ratmansky’s observation might involve Marie Petipa and Carlotta Brianza, the original Lilac Fairy and Aurora. Marie, the choreographer’s daughter, was known in her time as a superb character dancer. She danced on pointe in the prologue, but for the rest of the ballet her shoes were heeled and her role was to pantomime. Brianza, at age twenty-three a Milan-trained, technically proficient ballerina, had been invited to the Mariinsky by the ballet master and Vsevolozhky, director of imperial theaters. She was part of a troupe of Italians, led by Enrico Cecchetti, which had excited audiences with their spectacular programs in the summer theaters outside Petersburg in the late 1880s. Cecchetti had been hired by the Mariinsky in 1887; Brianza joined in 1889. (Cecchetti portrayed both Carabosse and the Bluebird in the premiere.) Those dancers brought to the ballet school something that came to be known as Italian technique, later exemplified in the Cecchetti method. This emphasized fast pirouettes (even double tours for the men) and petite batterie. From Ratmansky’s reading of the choreographic notation, we know that double tours were specified for the Pages in act 1; we have already noted Aurora’s petite batterie.

The idea that The Sleeping Beauty is about the two women suggests the further thought that pantomime and technique, like Lilac and Aurora, depend on each other to maintain equilibrium. After all, the fairy tale itself concerns an evil spell that upsets the proper course of events, as well as the eventual restoration of proper balance in both worlds. The fairies are necessary to bless and protect Aurora and the terrestrial realm. So, too, harmony in the fairy world (both Carabosse and Lilac process at the wedding) depends on untying the knots and settling the affairs of humans. To give credit to Marius Petipa, choreography for the two leading female roles is nuanced, with Lilac shaded toward pantomime and Aurora shaded toward technique.

Even though Petipa complained that “the Italian school is ruining ballet,”38 changes were inevitable to the danse d’école he established over decades at the Mariinsky. “The old classical school cannot freeze in its forms,” wrote Nijinska in her early dance treatise. She was speaking from her vantage point as a graduate of the Imperial Ballet School and dancer for several years at the Mariinsky, who by then was working to establish her Ecole de Mouvement in post-revolutionary Kiev. She knew Petipa, she knew Cecchetti and Brianza and Sergeyev, and she would later help to stage The Sleeping Princess. But Nijinska’s point that innovations enrich the classical tradition applies not only to Petipa’s danse d’école, but also to Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty—remember Diaghilev’s admonishment that “one does not return” to classicism, one evolves toward it. By his own account Ratmansky’s view of The Sleeping Beauty evolved during the course of exploring the choreographic notations and by re-creating the steps therein and contemplating their execution. Ratmansky’s success is that, as Nijinska put it, “The choreographer must make movement visible to the artist/interpreter, must teach the artist to reveal the movement, and make it visible to the spectator…. [Otherwise,] dance proceeds like a sewing machine, always making the same stitches.”39


“Scenery … has to create the atmosphere, the artistic framework for the play.”40

What a delight to luxuriate in the gorgeous sets and costumes of ABT’s Sleeping Beauty! And thank goodness designer Richard Hudson (of ABT’s Nutcracker and the Broadway show The Lion King) adapted so much of Léon Bakst’s work for the Ballets Russes Sleeping Princess. Expediency and exigency converged; there was no time to imagine entirely new décor, nor did Ratmansky want to re-create the 1890 original designs, which had been done in the 1999 Kirov production. “I have always loved how [the Bakst designs] look,” he said. “They’re hard to surpass and are as much part of the Sleeping Beauty myth as any other component.”41 With the Bakst-derived designs seen onstage for the first time in nearly a century, Ratmansky brings to life another aspect of the ballet’s history.

Diaghilev’s Sleeping Princess has figured importantly in the westward journey of The Sleeping Beauty, not only for its use of Sergeyev’s notations, but also for Bakst’s spectacular designs. In the designs, the artist showed a different sensibility toward the work—one uniquely Russian but distanced from the imperial stagings of The Sleeping Beauty. The scenic painter “must set the tone of the entire production,” wrote Bakst early in his Ballets Russes career. “It is up to the painter to understand past approaches as well as modern ones, and know how to balance the two. [He] must determine the style of the production. It is his scenic taste, previously submerged in a thousand details, that brings together the poignant and grandiose in a beautiful theatrical work.”42 Unlike the 1890 Sleeping Beauty décor, which replicated palace rooms and gardens in a realistic way—backdrops and side flats with the occasional “real” property such as a crib, throne, or bed—Bakst created a shifting impression over the five scenes. As the critic W. A. Propert wrote of The Sleeping Princess, “One can safely say that nothing like it had been seen in our time…. [T]hese elements had been blended into so masterly a whole and sharpened with so personal a fantasy that the completed design was pure Bakst, and Bakst of the finest kind.”43

Bakst juxtaposed architectural etchings in sepia tones, for the first and last scenes, with soft trees, a misty woods, and draped curtains for the three inner scenes. The ABT sets follow Bakst’s lead. The backdrops for the prologue and for act 3 are monochromatic, lined drawings of columns and soaring arches, which Bakst based on eighteenth-century etchings of baroque theater designs (see figure 3). Their grandness and precise linearity emphasize the royal hierarchy of King Florestan’s realm, as well as the formal nature of the ceremonies: a christening, a wedding. From a theatrical standpoint, the “etchings” contrast brilliantly with the decorative cacophony of the court and fairy characters: the rich colors, ribbons and tassels, undulating feathers, and sparkling jewels. Bakst was inspired by the Bibiena family’s baroque theater designs, which advanced the stage illusion of depth through the use of perspective. The illusion of depth in Bakst’s backcloths symbolizes the illusive nature of Florestan’s power, dependent as it is on nonterrestrial matters. In the prologue, the central arch is turned to forty-five degrees, disturbing the symmetry of the typical “vanishing point” of baroque sets. As used by Bakst and Hudson, this Bibiena innovation, called scena per angolo, suggests trouble in the Kingdom. And the rounded forms and blue skies (in The Sleeping Princess they were scudded with clouds; see figure 4) of act 3 suggest the return of balance and optimism.

Sleeping Princesses and BeautiesLessons from Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty (2015)

Figure 3 Studio photo from The Sleeping Princess (1921), showing Bakst prologue scenery.

[Credit line: Bibliothèque Nationale, Musée de l’Opéra, Paris.]

Sleeping Princesses and BeautiesLessons from Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty (2015)

Figure 4 Photograph of painted backdrop for act 3 of The Sleeping Princess, 1921.

[Credit line: Sotheby & Co., Costumes and Curtains from Diaghilev and De Basil Ballets (auction catalog, July 17, 1968), 178.]

There are other instances in which Hudson blends into the ABT production elements from the 1890 Mariinsky sets and the Bakst ones. The paneled ceiling supported by side columns serves as a framework for the stage; it derives from the 1890 Mariinsky production. And in act 3, Hudson layers Bakst’s pelmet design in front of the paneled ceiling. In The Sleeping Princess, as in this production, the pelmet is not real—it is modeled on one that would have, perhaps, been made of velvet with gold trim and fringed tassels. Here the pelmet is painted on cloth. The “tassels” are meant to hide an imaginary curtain rod across the top of the stage. It’s a small point, but the two dimensionality of the pelmet references theatricality and illusion. These design choices, made very much in the historical context of The Sleeping Beauty ballet, give to the ABT production a literal, decorative framing from both the 1890 and 1921 productions.

Another important borrowing from Bakst is the giant, black eagle perched above Aurora’s bed in Hudson’s stage design for the awakening (see figure 5). It derives from a discarded design by Bakst for the awakening scene of The Sleeping Princess.44 The Hudson/Bakst eagle guards the sleeping Aurora, while the Lilac Fairy goes about her other business. As Bakst conceived it, the eagle’s protection complements the presence of the harp in the awakening music. For Bakst, the eagle summoned memories of the Romanov eagle and the imperial support of Russian ballet, gone by 1921. And there was another eagle of great personal importance to Bakst: a colophon he designed for the World of Art journal at the turn of the century, when he was working with Diaghilev. As Bakst explained at the time, “‘The World of Art’ is higher than anything earthly, it is next to the stars where it reigns haughtily, mysteriously, and in solitude like an eagle on a snowy peak and in this case we have an ‘eagle of the midnight countries,’ i.e. of the north of Russia.”45 Thus, the presence of the Hudson/Bakst eagle in the awakening scene resonates through history and signifies powerfully on multiple levels.

Sleeping Princesses and BeautiesLessons from Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty (2015)

Figure 5 Bakst design for the awakening scene.

[Credit line: Sotheby & Co., Catalogue Principally of Diaghilev Ballet Material (auction catalog, July 18, 1968), 18.]

The costumes of the fairies in the Ratmansky production also have historical resonance. After the Lilac Fairy’s variation in the prologue, she changes from pointe shoes and ballet skirt into something akin to the gown and heeled shoes Marie Petipa wore in photographs from 1890. Like a graceful field marshal with her Minervan helmet and tall staff (not a wand), she leads Prince Désiré into the netherworld of nymphs and the vision of Aurora. From here on Lilac’s role will be strictly pantomime, and her outfit reminds us how important gesture was in the original Sleeping Beauty.

Bakst and Diaghilev were the first to change the fairy names, though they let Lilac and Canari-qui-chante—Song-Birds—remain, and added a seventh, Mountain Ash. In The Sleeping Princess, the fairies evoked flowery and woodsy aromas and sounds, and Bakst chose striking colors and piquant decorative details for each. Though the ABT costumes are less bulky and shorter—knee-length—Candide wears the Pine Woods costume, Fleur-de-farine dons the Cherry Blossom dress, and Violente becomes Fairy of the Humming Birds. Fairy Canari’s costume is from Bakst’s design, too. Probably the layered meanings are lost on the audience; after all, Candide’s attribute of sincerity has nothing to do with Pine Woods. Seeing Bakst’s design for Fairy Violente/Humming Birds onstage today may be the closest we will come to imagining Bronislava Nijinska’s interpretation of that role in 1921 (see figure 6). In toto, these design decisions are a thrilling way to fold into the ABT production symbolic and decorative aspects of the Ballets Russes and 1890 versions.

Sleeping Princesses and BeautiesLessons from Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty (2015)

Figure 6 Studio photo, Bronislava Nijinska as Fairy of the Humming Birds, costume design by Léon Bakst.

[Credit line: Bronislava Nijinska Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.]

Act 3 is another locus at which Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty pays homage to Bakst and The Sleeping Princess. Bakst’s Mazurka Boys and Girls, complete with Polish-style plumed helmets and uniforms for the men and undersea imagery (seaweed, shells) for the women, enliven the polacca. The topos of polonaise music, as distinguished from the dance, meant “triumph” to Russians. Originally it was triumph over Polish insurrections but gradually the polonaise came to mean any military triumph. At this point in the ballet, Tchaikovsky may have chosen to compose polonaise music, with its characteristic dotted rhythm in triple meter, to signify restoration of order in Florestan’s kingdom, triumph over disruption. The Hudson/Bakst design for Aurora’s wedding outfit—the gown she wears in the processional, with heeled shoes—has a pattern of sunrays. Bakst himself adapted this design from an eighteenth-century engraving of an Apollo costume made for the French Sun King; his choice deepened the connection between the Russian imperial ballet and French monarchy. (Tchaikovsky’s apotheosis music contained another connection: it was based on the French anthem “Vive Henri IV,” a song originally celebrating triumphs of the first Bourbon king and French royalty, and restyled, as here, to fit different circumstances. Later, revised lyrics celebrated the triumph of the 1789 revolutionaries and the restoration of the French monarchy.)

Bronislava Nijinska

“[N]othing stays the same…. [C]ulture acquires new perceptions that create, in turn, new sensibilities and ideas.”46

Like the reverence to one’s teachers that concludes ballet class, Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty honors the traditions and history associated with the ballet. He is a product of his training and experience, just as he is a prolific and creative artist; he is the student who finishes one class with a reverence even as he trots off to his next class, choreography, carrying the lessons of one to the other. Ratmansky’s curiosity to explore the style of Petipa, decidedly out of fashion in the world of modern ballet, led him to Sergeyev. And indeed, Sergeyev’s notations of Sleeping Beauty run like threads through the warp and woof of the ballet’s history, from Diaghilev’s Sleeping Princess in 1921–1922 and the development of British ballet to the 1999 Kirov Sleeping Beauty.

Text and tradition are two important aspects of The Sleeping Beauty work that converge here. It is tempting to view the text, a physical object, as immutable, in contrast with the shifting sands of oral tradition. But that would be an error. As musicologist Leo Treitler pointed out, “The meaning of a text is not fixed within its boundaries but is ever contingent upon the interests and the circumstances of the community of readers or listeners.”47 Treitler refers to musical text, but his remark pertains just as aptly to Sergeyev’s choreographic notation. Some of the strengths and weaknesses of the text are noted above. Although the notations are of immense importance to the history of The Sleeping Beauty, they are not the final authority (because there is none) regarding how the ballet should be performed. In my opinion the physical object of the text is ultimately coeval with the choreographic traditions passed down from teacher to student. What a choreographer such as Ratmansky privileges is a matter of choice, of artistic interpretation.

And here is another lesson of Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty: this is what he perceives as the core of this ballet. He takes to heart Slonimsky’s charge that The Sleeping Beauty “requires not changes, not little rearrangements,” but “thoughtful cultivation of the precious grain which it contains.”48 For Ratmansky, the “essence” of The Sleeping Beauty lies in the ballet’s softer dance style and its resurrected connective tissue—not only the movement that joins pas to pas, but also the narrative gestures that tell the story and span the whole. It is the ballet’s “connection to the floor,”49 and to the music, as much as it is its connection to the Bakst décors. The beauty of his Beauty lies in the tale, told with love.

In cultivating that “precious grain,” Ratmansky brings to the ballet an old-fashionedness that has the power to enchant us—we who live in a wired, global age (or because we do). Perhaps ballet dancers’ technical feats have reached a limit, or perhaps the choreographer and audiences have begun to perceive those feats as empty, cold, and mechanical. Although ABT’s Sleeping Beauty retains the “wow” factor of imperial splendor and shimmering costumes, this production is more intimate and less formal than other versions. Through details large and small, Ratmansky allows much to shine forth; the choreography does not overwhelm the music, but works with it. The décor—gorgeous in its own terms—evokes Bakst, Diaghilev, and the westward trail of The Sleeping Beauty. The mime does not stop the dancing; it tells the story more clearly and at key points is folded into the variations and adagios. The 1% cannot dance to hip-hop. There is plenty of humor and—yes—silliness in the act 3 scènes de caractères.

Ratmansky has pointed out that embedded in the choreographic notation is the revelation of Petipa’s danse d’école in Sleeping Beauty—the full progression from demi-pointe to full pointe (in arabesques, in chaîné turns), and progression of the foot from sur-le-cou-de-pied to mid-calf to knee-high retiré. His Beauty revels in the “connection with the floor,” the brushing and the low jetés, and the no-higher-than-waist-high leg extensions. The attention to épaulement in Aurora’s first variation is so precise and so academic, and it makes sense when viewed in context. An exegesis in orientation, the variation becomes an artistic expression of the young debutante. But this is only one example of many that saturate Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty. As seen throughout, Ratmansky allows Petipa’s danse d’école to unfold as a progression of pas and techniques rather than as a finished product. You cannot just arrive, Ratmansky seems to say, channeling Petipa; you have to get there first. “If the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us or in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should positively be discouraged,” wrote T. S. Eliot. “Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.”50


Bakst, Léon. Letter to Alexandre Benois, October 24, 1898. Quoted in translation in John E. Bowlt, “Theater of Reason, Theater of Desire.” In Theater of Reason/Theater of Desire: The Art of Alexandre Benois and Léon Bakst, edited by John E. Bowlt, 39. Castagnola, Italy: Thyssen-Bornemisza Foundation, 1998.Find this resource:

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Diaghilev, Sergei. Interview in Utro Rossii [Russian morning], August 24, 1910. Quoted in translation in Léon Bakst: The Theatre Art, by Alexander Schouvaloff, 97. London: Sotheby’s Publications, 1991.Find this resource:

Eliot, T. S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent (1919).” In Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, edited by Frank Kermode (ed.), 37–44. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1975.Find this resource:

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Spessivtseva, Olga. Undated draft letter to A. Volynsky (1922). Quoted in Sergey Konaev, “Introduction and Commentaries to Nikolai Sergeyev Letters.” In Mnemozina: Dokumenty i fakty iz istorii otechestvennogo teatra XX veka, 6:574–75n26. Moscow: Indrik, 2014.Find this resource:

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(1) Librettist and historian Yuri Slonimsky, quoted in Fyodor Lopukhov, “Annals of ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ I: The Choreography,” Ballet Review 5, no. 4 (1975–1976): 22 (trans. Debra Goldman).

(2) Marina Harss, “Alexei Ratmansky—Simple and Wise, a Q & A about Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty for ABT,” August 14, 2015,

(3) Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Expositions and Developments (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1959), 113–114. Stravinsky was referring specifically to his music for the Ballets Russes Pulcinella of 1920, based on music of Pergolesi and others. “Pulcinella was my discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible” (113).

(4) Michel Georges-Michel, Ballets russes: Histoire anecdotique suivie du Poème de Scheherazade (Paris: Aux éditions du monde nouveau, 1923), 13–14 (my translation; ellipses in original, except where bracketed).

(5) Ratmansky, quoted in Harss, “Alexei Ratmansky”; Ratmansky, quoted in Susan Reiter, “American Ballet Theatre Gives ‘Sleeping Beauty’ a Classical Update,” Los Angeles Times, February 26, 2015.

(6) Ratmansky, quoted in Harss, “Alexei Ratmansky.”

(7) See Doug Fullington, “The Sleeping Beauty Reconstructed,” Ballet Review 28, no. 2 (Summer 2000): 79–89; and Tim Scholl, “Sleeping Beauty”: A Legend in Progress (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2004).

(9) T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/ Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1975), 44.

(10) Dance historian Sergey Konaev notes that the documents were legally the property of the Directorate of the Imperial Theaters, since they had commissioned them originally, but that Soviet laws limited pre-revolutionary legal disputes. Konaev, “Introduction and Commentaries to Nikolai Sergeyev Letters,” in Mnemozina: Dokumenty i fakty iz istorii otechestvennogo teatra XX veka (Moscow: Indrik, 2014), 6:573n3 (trans. Irina Klyagin).

(11) Undated draft letter from O. Spessivtseva to A. Volynsky (1922), quoted in Konaev, Mnemozina, 574–75n26 (trans. Irina Klyagin). Konaev adds that Volynsky was attacked for bringing up Sergeyev’s name.

(12) “Reopening of Covent Garden: A Royal Occasion,” The Times (London), February 21, 1946, 6.

(13) Mona Inglesby with Kay Hunter, Ballet in the Blitz (Debenham, UK: Groundnut Publishing, 2008), 114–115.

(14) Vasily Rozanov, “The Apocalypse of Our Time,” in The Apocalypse of Our Time and Other Writings, ed. and with an introduction by Robert Payne and an afterword by George Ivask (New York: Praeger, 1977), 225 (trans. Robert Payne and Nikita Romanoff). Rozanov knew Bakst and Diaghilev; Bakst painted his portrait. Rozanov starved to death in a Russian monastery in 1919.

(17) Fullington, “The Sleeping Beauty Reconstructed,” 80. At that time, the Mariinsky Ballet was called the Kirov Ballet outside of Russia.

(18) See Scholl, “Sleeping Beauty,” for discussion of the political storm created by the 1999 Kirov Sleeping Beauty. Gershenzon quotations are from Makhar Vaziev, Sergei Vikharev, and Pavel Gershenzon, “A Sleeping Beauty,” Ballet Review 27, no. 1 (Spring 1999): 18 (trans. Tim Scholl from interviews for the Russian Telegraph [published in 1998] by Pavel Gershenzon, then assistant director of the Mariinsky Ballet, with Makhar Vaziev, director of the Mariinsky [Kirov] Ballet, and Sergei Vikharev, a soloist in the company).

(20) See Fullington, “The Sleeping Beauty Reconstructed,” 79–89. Among the questions Fullington raises about the 1999 Kirov Beauty is: “Did the reconstructors misread the notation or simply not read it at all?” (86). Scholl, who had some direct involvement in that production, also raises the question, but does not answer it.

(22) Ratmansky, personal conversation with author, June 2, 2015.

(24) Marcia B. Siegel, At the Vanishing Point: A Critic Looks at Dance (New York: Saturday Review Press, 1972), 1.

(25) Lydia Goehr, in The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), explores through philosophical reasoning many of these ideas in the sphere of music. Goehr quotes E. T. A. Hoffmann on composers’ intentions: “The genuine artist lives only for the work, which he understands as the composer understood it and which he now performs. He does not make his personality count in any way. All his thoughts and actions are directed towards bringing into being all the wonderful, enchanting pictures and impressions the composer sealed in his work with magical power.” Goehr divides the issue at hand into two philosophical approaches: analytical (finding “the best description of the kind of object a work is”) and historical (describing “the way the concept of a work emerged in classical music practice and how it has functioned therein.”) Kindle edition, locs. 60 and 90.

(29) Bronislava Nijinska, “On Movement and the School of Movement,” repr. in Nancy Van Norman Baer, Bronislava Nijinska: A Dancer’s Legacy (San Francisco, CA: The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco: 1986), 85 (trans. Irina Nijinska et al. from B. Nijinska’s choreographic notebooks dated 1919–1925). In 1919 Nijinska opened her Ecole de Mouvement in Kiev. The post-revolutionary events and civil war made for difficult circumstances, and when she received news of her brother Vaclav’s mental illness in 1921, she closed the school and left Russia for the West.

(30) Ratmansky, conversation with author, June 2, 2015.

(35) Akim Volynsky, “Two Schools of Classical Dance: ‘Sleeping Beauty’,” in Ballet’s Magic Kingdom: Selected Writings on Dance in Russia, 1911–1925, trans., ed., and with an introduction and notes by Stanley J. Rabinowitz (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2008), 72. Originally published in Zhizn’ iskusstva, October 24, 1922.

(36) Ratmansky, conversation with author, June 2, 2015.

(37) Ratmansky, conversation with author, June 2, 2015.

(38) Quoted in translation in Scholl, “Sleeping Beauty”, 23. Originally published in Peterburgskaya gazeta, December 2, 1896.

(40) Diaghilev interview in Utro Rossii [Russian morning], August 24, 1910. Quoted in translation in Alexander Schouvaloff, Léon Bakst: The Theatre Art (London: Sotheby’s Publications, 1991), 97.

(42) Léon Bakst to Huntley Carter [1911?], autograph letter, National Art Library (Great Britain), Manuscript MSL/1933/2235 (in French; my translation).

(43) W. A. Propert, The Russian Ballet, 1921–1929 (London: John Lane/The Bodley Head Limited, 1931), 11–12.

(44) Bakst’s original design for the Awakening scene proved unworkable because the massive three-dimensional eagle, built atop Aurora’s bed, nearly detached during rehearsal stage maneuvers. Bakst was forced to devise a new, simpler scenario, and the premiere was delayed several days. Even though the ABT’s eagle is two dimensional and hung from above, it wobbled precariously during this scene.

(45) Léon Bakst to Alexandre Benois, October 24, 1898. Quoted in translation in John E. Bowlt, “Theater of Reason, Theater of Desire,” in Theater of Reason/Theater of Desire: The Art of Alexandre Benois and Léon Bakst, ed. John E. Bowlt (Castagnola, Italy: Thyssen-Bornemisza Foundation, 1998), 39. For a detailed analysis of the aesthetic and historical underpinnings of Bakst’s décor for The Sleeping Princess, see my doctoral dissertation, “Diaghilev’s Sleeping Princess (1921)” (Princeton University, 2011).

(47) Leo Treitler, Music and the Historical Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 1.

(49) Ratmansky, conversation with author, June 2, 2015.