Sleeping Beauty Ballet

Thursday, 16 January 1890 - St. Petersburg, Russia

Last night the Imperial Russian Ballet magnificent. The sets and costumes were lavish, the music enchanting and still going through my head. It’s said the Italians invented ballet, the French refined it but the Russians perfected it. And this is the beginning of the Golden Age of Russian ballet.

Mariinsky Theatre
The Imperial Ballet was started in 1738 when Empress Anna, niece of Peter the Great, brought the French ballet master Jean-Baptiste Landé to St. Petersburg to teach members of her staff to dance to entertain her. Usually she entertained herself by playing humiliating and cruel pranks on the nobility. If this was just another attempt at demeaning the household, Landé didn’t get the joke and within a few years formed the Imperial Russian Ballet.

Catherine the Great, whom Landé taught to dance, established a permanent theatre for the ballet in 1783, named the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre. In 1860 this bigger theater, with the largest stage in the world, was built nearby and named the Mariinsky Theatre after its imperial patroness, the late Empress Maria Alexandrovna, wife of Tsar Alexander II and mother of the current Tsar, Alexander III.

Mariinsky Theatre interior (from the stage)

Marius Petipa
Perhaps the one man most responsible for the current Golden Age is Maestro Marius Ivanovich Petipa, the Premier Maître de Ballet of the Imperial Theatres. The now 72-year-old ballet master will choreograph over 50 ballets during his career and will be considered one of the most influential ballet choreographers to have ever lived. Born in France to an drama teacher and ballet instructor, one could say the theatre is in Petipa’s blood. In fact, his daughter, Marie Petipa is dancing tonight as the Lilac Fairy, one of the main characters.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Petipa’s reputation are already such that others jump at the chance to work with him. When the Director of the Imperial Theatres, Ivan Wsevolojskoy, asked the internationally famous composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky if he would write the music for tonight’s ballet, he eagerly agreed. Not that Tchaikovsky needed the money. A few years back Tzar Alexander III awarded him a lifetime pension. Perhaps Tchaikovsky wanted to take another stab at ballets. His first, Swan Lake, received lukewarm reviews when it premiered 13 years ago. But then Petipa did not choreograph it. (Swan Lake will do much better five years from now when Petipa does a revival and works his magic on it.)

The cast itself are some of the best in the world. Enrico Cecchetti is considered the greatest ballet virtuoso in the world even though he is 40 years-old. He played the evil witch and in the last act, the Bluebird. The Bluebird dance is still considered one of the most challenging ever choreographed. Enrico will soon be retiring from the stage to teach using his the Cecchetti method that is still being used today.
Enrico Cecchetti as the Bluebird
The Ballet is based on Charles Perrault’s fairytale of Sleeping Beauty. It is in a prologue and three acts and with intermissions runs about four hours, being nearly three hours without the intermissions. The first two acts follow the story of the familiar fairy tale. The last act is the wedding of Princess Aurora to Prince Désiré who wakes her up. The guests are all fairy tale characters like Puss-in-Boots, Hop-o’-My-Thumb, and Little Red Riding Hood each doing their own dance.

Last night's cast of Sleeping Beauty
When the curtain fell to thunderous applause. Tsar Alexander III who allows sits in the box to the left of the stage called Tchaikovsky to his box. All he said was “Very nice.” From the composers expression I think he was expecting more than just “very nice.”

Tsar's Box next to the stage
Sleeping Beauty will such a success that director Wsevolojskoy will commission Tchaikovsky to compose the music for the Nutcracker Ballet which will premier in two years. It will not do as well as tonight’s ballet. It is ironic that the least famous of Tchaikovsky’s ballets, Sleeping Beauty was the most popular in his lifetime.

Not that Sleeping Beauty will be forgotten. It is a classic performed throughout time (although usually shortened.) In 1999 the Mariinsky Ballet will reconstruct this performance with not only the original choreography, but reproductions of the original costumes and sets. But they won’t have the original dancers.

Mariinsky Ballet's recontruction of Sleeping Beauty
Now the 27th century can see the original production when I return home. But a recording can’t catch the true exhilaration of a live performance. Events like last night make all the training and sacrifice it took to become a Temporal Anthropologist all worth it.

Sleeping Beauty Waltz

The Bluebird and Florine
The Mariinsky Ballet’s reconstruction of Sleeping Beauty

More photos:
Maria Petipa as the Lilac Fairy
Princess Aurora and Prince Desiree

Post Script: In 1924, one of the former students of the Imperial School of Ballet will flee the communists and their restriction on creativity for the West. George Balanchie will co-found the New York City Ballet and serve as it's Ballet Master and choreographer, helping develop ballet in America. You can read about this pioneer in the book:
Balanchine: Russian-American Ballet Master Emeritus

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