The more one knows fairy tales the less fantastical they appear . . .Marina Warner, From The Beast to the Blonde
How many ways to think about “Sleeping Beauty”? In the first written Italian and French versions, the plots outline the fate of a young girl as the object of family jealousy, trickery and, after being drugged asleep, ravishment. By the mid-19th century, the Brothers Grimm toned down the storyline, romanticized and adapted it as a story fit for children. Ivan Vsevolozhsky, Tchaikovsky, and Marius Petipa’s 1890 landmark ballet further refashioned it. But another few generations of scholarly research recognized the darker undertones and representations of girls in the fairy tale tradition. Apart from handsome swains or huntsmen who save damsels like Beauty or Red Riding Hood from stepmothers or disfigured crones, the producers of even the most treasured classics should take some measure of the plight of characters, even if fantasy.
As Marina Warner explores in her book about the 14th to 17th century versions of fairy tales, the entire genre of tales focused on young girls in peril can be disturbing for a contemporary in our #MeToo era. The tales, after all, were largely written for adult entertainment since children (especially girls) were barely acknowledged as persons before the mid-19th century.
Both New York City Ballet and Philadelphia Ballet’s artistic director, Ángel Corella programmed the ballet about Aurora, an abused 16-year-old, during Women’s History Month. Philadelphia Ballet just completed a two-week run of the ballet at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music earlier this month.
Companies still perform Russian versions of “Sleeping Beauty,” ignoring the story’s sinister origins and its Francophiliac nods to the French Court and the Sun King. In 2018, Diana Vishneva’s nearly solo production of “Sleeping Beauty Dreams” with Rem Haas’s videography at Manhattan’s Beacon Theater, gave the tale a hint of its backstory. In a promo video for its Miami premiere, Vishneva said “It’s a story of facing your own dark side.” She wore a motion capture body suit that limited her movement, imparting metaphorical meaning to the beauty who lay motionless for 100 years. Visually nightmarish, there were thankfully few children in the mostly Russian-speaking crowd.
Over its 133-year history, artistic directors and choreographers have taken shots at editing, cutting or even lengthening (the worst impulse) the three-hour ballet. In 1937, director of the first Philadelphia Ballet, Catherine Littlefield, produced one of the earliest complete versions of “Sleeping Beauty” with her own choreography at the Academy of Music. And if you can catch snatches of Nureyev’s 1966 glorious version, with lush costumes by Nicholas Georgiadis on YouTube, you should.
The last classical version I saw live was Ib Andersen’s on Ballet Arizona 11 years ago to the day I saw Philadelphia Ballet’s on this March 9th. A principal dancer at Balanchine’s NYCB for ten years, Andersen’s staging was clean, crisp, filled with shimmering moments of frisson. So, I’m no Carabosse putting a curse on the ballet—I love “Sleeping Beauty,” I’d just like to see one where she’s really woke.
Corella’s version cleaves closely to Vsevolozhsky’s original libretto. But surely some artistic changes to tighten and brighten the choreographic repetitions of the prologue and first two acts for today’s audiences should be considered. The Hunt, for instance, could be incorporated into Act I and we could have cut to the chase of the Vision within a few minutes. It would provide a more dramatic buildup to the lilting melodies and spectacular dance phrases of the third act, the Wedding. Which is what most audiences come for, if they can wait that long. Many did not.
The opening scrim was the gate to the old castle, now patinated by 100 years of disuse, with a philosopher and a soldier like grim sentinels on either side waiting for their reopening. It lifted to the court paying homage to the Enfant Aurora. Dayesi Torriente, Lilac Fairy and Aurora’s and Prince Desire’s Godmother, introduces the Princess to the court with lyrical variations of arabesques, balancés en avant and curtsies to the King (Charles Askegard) and Queen (Charity Eagens.) The Fairies: Purity (Ashley Lewis,) Vitality (Julia Vinez,) Generosity (Gabriele Lukasik,) Eloquence (Fernanda Oliviera,) and Passion (Sophie Savas-Carstens, bright as a firefly,) each in turn give Aurora their gifts while dancing their lively variations. The Courtiers in the Rose variation Prince Cheri (Isaac Hollis,) Prince Charmant (Russell Ducker,) Prince Fortune (Jack Sprance,) Prince Fleur de Pois (Jack Thomas) each make their suit to Aurora, but she hands their roses to her parents, a sign of rejection to all of them.
The uninvited Carabosse (a splendidly menacing Gabriela Mesa) makes her grand entrance on a carriage pulled by her dark creatures and reappears as a hunched over crone at Aurora’s 16th birthday party. Soon enough she hands Aurora the very spindle on which she will prick her finger and die. But Lilac countermands Carabosse’s curse, miming a spell that puts the entire court into a 100-year sleepover, and a promise that they will all awake when Prince Desiré finds Aurora and kisses her.
Thays Golz was my hero the night I attended. In her first time out as Aurora, she danced not as a clueless princess, but as a ballerina of exquisite sensitivity to the iconic ballet phrases the role demanded. When she awoke at the age of 116 years, she exuded astonishing strength hopping backwards en pointe and maintaining unfaltering attaque at each turn, her pointe shoes touching down as if magnetized to just the right spot. She fought for each of six temps de poisson landing forehead to the floor into Prince Desiré’s arms. Pau Pujol danced sublimely in his solos, but was a more dour than desirable partner in his grand pas de deux with Golz.
The men have their grand and petit assemblés, the townspeople dance folksy, and the fairies flit. And, maybe because it was late in the run, the “Pas de Guirlandes” looked sleepier than the princess and her court, their garlands dipping in disunity.
A word must be given to Beatrice Jona Affron and the Philadelphia Ballet orchestra for keeping Tchaikovsky’s enduring score flowing serenely throughout the show. But the costumes, rented from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and borrowed from others, appeared on stage together showing confusingly anachronistic fashions from the 17th, 18th and even 19th centuries. Napoleonic high-waisted Empire gowns next to 17th century periwigs added to the dissonance the whole evening long. Had fashions of one century remained the same or moved forward 100 years to when the court woke, it would have created more of a continuum.
Those who couldn’t stick it out to the end missed delightful, if inexplicable, cameos and solo turns when caractères from other fairy tales appeared as wedding guests. DiEmedio clawed the air adorably as the White Cat and Anna Serratosa tiptoed with her basket, naively unaware of the Wolf (Denis Maciel) following her. But Federico D’Ortenzi, as the Bluebird, masterfully leapt through his challenging jeté variations and fluttered us back out into the night.