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 …

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