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.

Roland John Wiley, the American dance historian who has made the closest study of Sergeyev’s papers, believes that the choreographic scores were mainly intended as a practical tool, “an aide-mémoire for those who already know the choreography.” As might be expected, the notators concentrated on the dances, minutely transcribing steps, counts, and accents. They also wrote out descriptions of the stage action, drew diagrams of floor plans, and set down mime scenes in dialogue form. Production details in The Sleeping Beauty, such as entrances and exits, were left blank, as was a large portion of Act II, including the panorama, the sleeping castle, and the awakening of the princess—in other words, the heart of the ballet from the dramatic point of view. Among the supplementary material carried off by Sergeyev, the most important items were the balletmaster’s plan prepared by Petipa, various scenarios, and a batch of heavily marked music scores used in rehearsal. Besides this trove of documents from Harvard, the Kirov reconstructors delved into archives in St. Petersburg for stage photographs and for scenery and costume designs. Probably the most precious local resource was a textbook on Stepanov’s work by Sergeyev’s confrere Alexander Gorsky, which enabled the chief reconstructor, Sergei Vikharev, to decipher the notation.

What Vikharev and his team have put on the stage is a régisseur’s work of art. Like a dinosaur skeleton, it stands, it impresses, it exists as history. But it is minimal, inert theater. The costumes by Ivan Vzevolozhsky constitute the principal attraction. Vzevolozhsky was not a major artist, but he was the director of the Imperial Theaters and the key figure in the creation of The Sleeping Beauty, dreaming up the idea, planning the mise-en-scène, commissioning the score from Tchaikovsky, and writing the libretto with Petipa’s help. His costumes were reservedly commended by Benois, and Benois was right, particularly about the jarring colors. Maroons, browns, crimsons, and deep blues jostle dainty pastels. But the costumes for the fairies and their attendants in the Prologue would grace any production today, and the Lilac Fairy (portrayed by Marie Petipa, the choreographer’s daughter) also got a number of changes, a fact which explains the contradictory photographs taken of her in 1890. The standard of workmanship in clothes, masks, and wigs throughout the present production is impeccable. One hundred and nine years after opening night, Vzevolozhsky is finally getting his due as a costume designer.

In Vzevolozhsky’s conception, not Princess Aurora but the Lilac Fairy is the ballet’s kingpin, and lilacs are the leitmotif of the décor. The frontcloth shows a bouquet of lilacs on a balustrade. The Fairy’s attendants have sprays emblazoned on their costumes, and wave fans made of leaves. In Act II, she carries a tall staff bound with bunches of lilacs at one end. The vines that cover the castle are lilac vines. We are supposed to smell this ballet. Through synesthesia, the symbolism becomes palpable: lilacs, spring, Aurora, dawn, youth, renewal, reawakening, renaissance.

The hundred years’ sleep falls between the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries—between the Valois and the Bourbon kings. Appearing in the second act, Désiré is a fantasy version of the young Louis XIV, young Apollo, the Sun King. Under the director’s supervision, five scenic designers raised credible facsimiles of Fontainebleau and Versailles (which are less well reproduced than the costumes). Benois, who in his own art cherished the grand siècle, lamented the change that came about in his favorite ballet when the epochs were moved forward eighty years by Korovin, the designer of Gorsky’s revival of 1914. Korovin’s scheme celebrated the Bourbons at the wrong end of the line, making nonsense of Tchaikovsky’s quotation of the hymn “Vive Henri Quatre” at the very end of the ballet.2 Bakst’s sets for Diaghilev in 1921 substituted for real locales Baroque stage sets after the Bibienas; his costumes for the second half of the ballet were unequivocally Louis Quinze. Oliver Messel’s décor for Sadler’s Wells followed suit.

Meddling with the epochs has since become a scene designer’s prerogative. I have seen transitions from the eighteenth to the nineteenth centuries, even from the nineteenth to the twentieth. What difference does it make? Well, the Russians understood The Sleeping Beauty as an allegory, and a young girl’s sexual awakening was the least of it. Primarily the ballet was about ballet—its flowering in the French courts of the Baroque era and its resurgence under Romanticism at the Paris Opera. France was Petipa’s homeland; Vzevolozhsky had been a member of the French legation in Paris. For their scenario, they drew on their memories of the féeries of French theater as well as on the backlog of Opera ballets about the sleeping princess and/or the evil fairy. One of these was a Belle au Bois Dormant of 1829, in which the young Taglioni danced as a naiad. In 1890, they looked backward to Renaissance dance and, in a momentous vision scene, forward to the “modern” ballet of the Romantic era. Historically speaking, Aurora in Act I is the embodiment of Mlle. LaFontaine, the first ballerina of the Paris Opera; in Act II, she is Taglioni, appearing to the prince as a naiad of the river of time. In the third-act mazurka, Aurora is a Russian ballerina.

The Russians saw themselves as ballet’s rescuers, bestowing the kiss of life on an art that lay moribund in Paris. When in 1914 Konstantine Korovin moved the ballet into the eighteenth century, it was probably to bring it closer to the Russian experience of ballet, which began with the founding of the St. Petersburg school in 1734 by a French balletmaster, the first of a long line culminating in Marius Petipa. In Petipa’s own production, the Russianization of French ballet is the grander for being implicit.

The Kirov production clarifies the allegorical sweep of the ballet, but it leaves other questions unsettled, leading us to surmise either that a fair amount of confusion reigned over the ballet at its inception or that exigencies of the initial seasons got locked in as sacred writ. Who is giving gifts in the Prologue? The action shows the fairies giving gifts to the infant Aurora several times over. The libretto states that they also receive gifts from the king, but we never see this. The crux seems to occur between the waltz (No. 2) and the adagio (No. 3). The waltz commences with the pages of the court—the same pages who have been parading about with objects on pillows (the gifts)—and the fairies skillfully blend themselves with the waltzers. The same forces then dance the adagio. The difference in tone between the secular waltz and the divine adagio is never made clear in the staging. We never get the point that the fairies’ gifts of qualities and talents (beauty, wit, song, dance, etc.) are of an order entirely different from anything they could receive from the king of the realm. The last gift, sleep, is given by the Lilac Fairy to countermand the evil fairy’s prophecy of death, but the wonderful irony of this gift’s having been the fruit of a last-minute interruption is missing.

In the vision scene, the Kirov identifies Aurora and her retinue as naiads. It even restores the ancient device of Venus’s seashell, on which Aurora takes an arabesque balance at the close of the adagio. But it obscures the symbolism of the river and of the naiad as Venus Aphrodite, the source. (When the prince is offered a glimpse of the sleeping Aurora, she isn’t in her rocky niche at the fountainhead, posing with face averted and eyes downcast; she’s at home, lying prosaically on her satin bed—a painting is slid out from the wings. This may be staged differently at the Maryinsky.) All the I’m-here-but-not-here declarations of the ectoplasmic Aurora’s dancing in this act are compromised. The solo is set to music transferred by Petipa from Act III rather than to the music written for it—why can only be guessed at. Wiley speculates that the number (Gold, from the Suite of Jewels and Precious Metals) was easier for the ballerina to dance. But by 1903, thirteen years after the première, several ballerinas had danced it besides the original, Carlotta Brianza. Retaining the Gold Waltz in the wrong place meant that an awkward segue had to be written into Tchaikovsky’s score. Why would Petipa have clung to this arrangement? I can only theorize that the symbol for gold in the table of elements, Au, suggested to him Aurora and, perhaps, Aumer, the choreographer of that 1829 Belle au Bois Dormant from which he borrowed his naiads. Petipa may have been indulging in the kind of symbolism that led him to ask Tchaikovsky for a “pentahedral” variation for Sapphire, in 5/4 time.

Finally, does Carabosse, the evil fairy, come to the wedding or not? Astonishingly, she does, carried in on a chair like other fairies from the Prologue.3 But nothing is made of her presence, ostensibly because her original interpreter, Enrico Cecchetti, appeared in the wedding scene as the Bluebird, and her arrival had to be faked by a double. Again, this seems a poor excuse. By 1903, Cecchetti was in Warsaw. Had Petipa taken the notated rehearsals, he would probably have revised Carabosse’s perfunctory entry at the wedding.

In The Sleeping Beauty of 1890, Russian ballet went back to the source and moved ahead; to return is to advance. When Balanchine was a young dancer in Petrograd, participating in Fyodor Lopoukhov’s revival of 1922, the watchword was “Forward with Petipa!” (This, of course, was before socialist realism crushed classicism.) In 1928, Balanchine and Stravinsky did go forward with Petipa and Tchaikovsky by creating Apollo. One of the things I wondered whether I might see in the 1890 ending (the apotheosis) was a connection with the 1928 ending of Apollo. A photograph of the 1939 London production has the fairies arrayed on a staircase in the manner of Apollo and the Muses in Balanchine’s ballet. Petipa’s apotheosis hadn’t been notated, so somebody—Sergeyev or de Valois or Ashton or the fairies themselves—staged it from memory. But a memory of Petipa’s ending or Balanchine’s? Or was it Balanchine’s memory of Petipa (or Gorsky or Lopoukhov)? No one connected with the 1939 apotheosis now recalls where it came from, and the Kirov’s apotheosis has no staircase. (The scene, very likely staged from a photograph, is hard to make out: Apollo in his quadriga, crudely painted on the backcloth, surmounts scalloped tiers of clouds with live cherubim sticking their heads out, playing harps.)

Ballet can be reduced to notation, but it really exists in the interplay between memory and the imagination. We are interested in, even fascinated by, the curio the Kirov has presented, because we love The Sleeping Beauty. But we do not love it as given here. Scene for scene, dance for dance, we (that is, I and a few other fossils) have seen it better done. We have seen it better done by the Kirov in the 1960s. In those days, the Kirov had no choreographers, but it had dancers who danced modestly and precisely, with a true regard for style. The choreographers who have emerged in recent years are like ours—self-starters with no interest in the classical tradition, no belief in it as something that steadily evolves, redefining itself against a changing background of times and customs.

Even if there were classical choreographers (who happen to exist nowhere in the world at the moment), the dancers are stylistically crude. The women have expressive arms and upper backs, and they love to throw a leg up past an ear, but like dancers everywhere they ginch up the hip to do it. Their art-nouveau line, brittle relevés, and tremulous pirouettes are all wrong for The Sleeping Beauty. Giselle was always their big number, and it still is. In the all-Balanchine evening, they were most successful in Serenade, the Balanchine ballet that pays homage to Giselle and is passionately Russian at the same time. The spotlight all season was on young female talent—on potential without direction. The conductor, Gianandrea Noseda, also young and talented, performed like a raw recruit, pacing the ballet scores well but giving concert readings of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings and Bizet’s Symphony in C without regard for the dancers on the stage.

At the end of a century it has mostly had to sleep through, the Kirov wakes to find itself in the same predicament as every other classical company, but it has options the others don’t have. One is to absorb, in proper style, the Balanchine ballets that are the century’s masterpieces, part of its legacy from Petipa. As for The Sleeping Beauty, with the best will in the world, the company can only give us the Wagnerian side, not the Mozartean side. When it can dance that, the ballet will wake up, too, and recognize Maître Petipa in whatever guise he has come, and speak to him the words of the old tale: “Is it you my Prince, you have waited a great while.”

This Issue

August 12, 1999