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On ‘Beauty’ Bare

The Sleeping Beauty performed by the Kirov Ballet at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, June 28-30, 1999

a ballet choreographed by Marius Petipa, with music by Tchaikovsky,

Revivals of historic prerevolutionary productions have become a specialty of the Kirov Theater, the Maryinsky of St. Petersburg. Last year, a Silver Age Ruslan and Lyudmila, with designs by Konstantine Korovin and Alexander Golovin and ballets by Michel Fokine, was the hit of the Kirov Opera season in New York. This summer, the Kirov Ballet brought us another and more ambitious restoration—the original 1890 Sleeping Beauty of Tchaikovsky and Petipa, staged according to notation dating from 1903, the year the ballet passed its hundredth performance.

The efficacy of dance notation is very much on people’s minds these days along with the whole questionable business of dance curatorship; also, the state of Russian art and culture has been a subject of curiosity since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The ballet was once the jewel of that culture, and the jewel of the ballet was The Sleeping Beauty. It was only a matter of time before the process of recovery in which the Russians seem currently engaged would bring them to it.

To anyone who has not felt its magic in a live ballet performance, it is probably impossible to convey a sense of the uniqueness of The Sleeping Beauty, of its distinction as a dance masterpiece, and of where it stands among the masterpieces of lyric theater. There is no other ballet like it, although several of Balanchine’s give us concentrated doses of its essence. There is no opera like it, although, if one could imagine a Magic Flute which came after Wagner and not before, one might be close to the truth. The best testimonials to The Sleeping Beauty are the careers of the artists who came under its spell and for whom it had the power of conversion. It was this ballet that made Balanchine a choreographer, Pavlova a dancer, and Diaghilev a balletomane. The impact of the first production upon Diaghilev’s generation of artists and intellectuals, a generation enthralled by Wagner, Nietzsche, and the principle of the Gesamtkunstwerk, has been borne out in a number of memoirs. “For three hours I lived in a magic dream,” Leon Bakst has recalled. In common with other celebrants of that production, Bakst seems to think the music was written just for him. “All my being was in cadence with those rhythms, with the radiant and fresh waves of beautiful melodies, already my friends.” For Alexandre Benois, the music was “something infinitely close, inborn, something I would call my music.”

Perhaps, as Benois in his eighties insisted, it really was his personal passion for ballet, rekindled by The Sleeping Beauty and communicated to his colleagues in the World of Art, that inspired the formation of the Ballets Russes. However, the general experience of that moment was one of personal revelation. The principle of the Gesamtkunstwerk involves not only the combining of the arts but the intermingling of the senses. The music, by setting off precisely that dérèglement de tous les sens of which Rimbaud had spoken, had plunged each listener into a profound state of trancelike subjectivity. It can still do that, of course, although without Petipa’s choreography to direct your thoughts, without the actual scenes for which Tchaikovsky had provided the setting, you probably have never really heard The Sleeping Beauty.

The script of The Sleeping Beauty turns the fairy tale about the princess who pricks her finger on a spindle, sleeps a hundred years, and is awakened by a prince into a parable of divine intervention. What plot there is, is played out or foretold in the Prologue. Fairies bring christening gifts to the infant princess Aurora. An uninvited fairy, Carabosse, storms in and condemns the infant to death on her sixteenth birthday, but the Lilac Fairy revokes the curse, changing death to sleep. In the next three acts, fate simply takes its course. No libretto ever had less suspense and more wisdom. The parable of divine intervention in human affairs becomes a revelation of the divinity within human nature. This is the divinity which lies in the capacity for art. The unmentioned gift of art, for which ballet becomes an extended metaphor, stands revealed in the final scene, the apotheosis, when Apollo descends to confer his blessing on Aurora’s wedding.

The moral substance of The Sleeping Beauty is porous; you can find anything in it you like: a defense of monarchy, a myth about the earth’s renewal, a love story, the Incarnation. Fundamentally, though, it is a meditation on itself. It sees art as a kind of miracle which is truly possible in human life. It was a kind of miracle that happened in the life of Marius Petipa. At the age of seventy, after some forty years of choreographing to the music of hacks, he was handed the opportunity to work with Tchaikovsky. Petipa the formalist seized the chance to clothe form in meaning. The format of the ballet is unswervingly consistent for three acts. Each act builds up to a pas d’action in the form of an adagio with variations. Inside these parallel structures—the fairies’ gift-giving, the royal rite of courtship on Aurora’s sixteenth birthday (the Rose Adagio), Prince Désiré’s vision of Aurora—the story unfolds. The last act, the wedding, is a divertissement of fairy tales.

The whole scholastic point of The Sleeping Beauty, of course, is a display of the classical arts of mime and dance—not in rigidly specialized compartments but in free sequences of gestural exchange flowing throughout the ballet. Even in the Rose Adagio, where the steps are still a technical challenge to today’s dancers, one wants to see a ballerina exhibit the range of meaning they possess in the context in which Petipa sets them: a slightly flustered but gracious young princess being courted by four boys at once. The ingenuity of the Rose Adagio is its contextualization of technique—one kind of protocol (social) explains, or is exchanged for, another (dance). All too often the number is presented as an echoless exercise in technique.

The way the Rose Adagio is danced today is not the way it was danced in Petipa’s day. Ballets change in performance. The only way to revive choreography is by magic empathy. “Petipa” is not an author, or even a text, but a climate of inspiration, like Auden’s Freud. It would be wonderful to be able to report the restoration, in this sense, of Petipa’s contribution to The Sleeping Beauty, but the Kirov worked strictly from the record, and the record is fragmentary. We were given stop-gap inspiration, some of it unavoidable. It was no fault of the Kirov’s that the panorama, comprising the Prince’s journey by boat and his approach by land to the sleeping castle, could not be staged at the Met. Instead, as a bridge to the awakening of the princess, the entr’acte with the violin solo was played to the Met’s gold curtain. (Very nice, but untrue to 1890. Dropped by Petipa, the entr’acte provided Tchaikovsky with the motif for what later became Christmas-tree music, and wound up in Balanchine’s Nutcracker.)

But compared to the music and the décor, the choreography seems to have been insecure from the start of the notating process in or around 1903. That was the year of Petipa’s dismissal from the Maryinsky; the venerable balletmaster’s rehearsals were now in the hands of Nicholas Sergeyev, a régisseur who was also one of several Maryinsky functionaries working in Stepanov notation to transcribe the repertory. (Vladimir Stepanov, a curious figure who combined anatomical and anthropological research with dance studies, had evolved a system for notating movement keyed to music, which he managed to have accepted by the Imperial Theaters before dying, at thirty, in 1896.)

The likelihood that the notators of The Sleeping Beauty never worked from a rehearsal conducted by Petipa, and the fact that the notation was never completed, did not keep it from becoming the master score of that ballet and, when Sergeyev left Russia in 1918, the basis of the two most meritorious and influential Western productions, both staged in London: Diaghilev’s in 1921 and the Sadler’s Wells’s in 1946.

Petipa, isolated from his art, died in 1910, an embittered man. Did he foresee that Sergeyev (“that malicious régisseur Sergeyev,” he called him) would be making a living peddling his ballets around Europe? What is important for us to note is that Sergeyev was not a choreographer. Furthermore, lacking in stage sense and unmusical “to a degree bordering on eccentricity,” according to Ninette de Valois, he actually posed a threat to the productions he oversaw. As de Valois tells it, she had to circumvent him in order to save the ballet.

He always carried a blue pencil, and would carefully pencil out a bar of music, which, for some reason, wearied him. The offending bar would receive a long, strong blue cross through it. This would mean that I must phone [the music director] Constant Lambert who would come down in the lunch break and put the bars back. Sergueeff [sic] would return, and because, in his absence, I had extended some small choreographic movement to cover Mr. Lambert’s tracks, he would be unaware that the position was musically where it had been before the onslaught of the blue pencil!

By these surreptitious means, de Valois and Lambert in 1939 contrived to put on a musically distinguished production of The Sleeping Beauty starring the young Margot Fonteyn, and after the war they redid it bigger and brighter, again with Fonteyn, and with embellishments and interpolations by Frederick Ashton, performing essentially the same service of rehabilitation that Nijinska had performed for Diaghilev in 1921. It was the Diaghilev version, a failure in its time, that the British artists held in mind, and it was their success at Covent Garden and then at the Met in New York that established the fame of Russian ballet’s greatest classic. The presence of that classic and of a half-dozen others brought from Russia to London by Sergeyev virtually guaranteed not only that the cream of the Russian repertory would be accurately performed in the West but that its creators’ contributions would be recognized and analyzed by historians.

Dance is the art without a past. Our knowledge of the three Tchaikovsky ballets and the process by which they were made is based largely on Sergeyev’s trunkful of dance scores and related memorabilia, which since 1969 has been stored in the Harvard Theater Collection. Without this source material we should have had to reinvent a crucial part of the nineteenth century, and Petipa’s genius would have remained as shadowy and indistinct as that of his fellow choreographers Perrot and Saint-Léon.

An odd duck like Sergeyev gains a place in the profession from his ability to reproduce the steps and configurations of many different ballets with whatever means are available. Sergeyev’s proficiency was sorely tested by Tchaikovsky’s music and by the poverty of British ballet in 1939; where Petipa had eighty dancers for the Garland Dance, Ninette de Valois had maybe sixteen.1 But manipulating numbers is part of a régisseur’s job. In the Kirov reconstruction, large numbers are revealing when they not only swell the scene but activate it. All the little maids and pages, each group with a moment of dancing to do, were charming to see, and were called for, too, by the repeats in the music. But a régisseur only provides the plan of action; a choreographer—a Nijinska or de Valois or Ashton—revives the ballet. It was never the aim of Sergeyev and the other Maryinsky notators to record Petipa’s masterpieces for posterity. Rather, with Petipa’s long reign over, they needed to assure themselves of a way of carrying on without him.

  1. 1

    That figure of eighty needs some explanation. The Garland Dance packed thirty-two dancers, including eight pairs of children, onto the Met stage, which is bigger than the Maryinsky’s, yet at the Maryinsky the number of dancers, we have been told, is seventy-two. I was unable to find out from Kirov personnel whether all seventy-two are ever on the stage at one time. If in fact the dancers come and go in units with some units not reappearing, we have the solution to the puzzling photograph of the 1890 Garland Dance in the Sleeping Beauty program, which shows dancers in costumes that aren’t the ones we saw on the stage.

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