This year is as much a bonanza for "Sleeping Beauty" as 1986 was for "Swan Lake," when we had no fewer than five versions of that ballet.

The Houston Ballet opens a three-night run at Wolf Trap tonight with Artistic Director Ben Stevenson's production of the classic.

Also tonight, American Ballet Theatre begins a two-week engagement at the Kennedy Center Opera House, with a program featuring the company's recent productions of Paul Taylor's "Sunset" and George Balanchine's "Stravinsky Violin Concerto." The ABT visit ends next week, however, with six performances of Sir Kenneth MacMillan's new million-dollar production of -- you guessed it -- "Sleeping Beauty."

Utah's Ballet West, during its appearances at Kennedy Center last fall, presented its own production of "Beauty." Last month, moreover, on the occasion of Lincoln Kirstein's 80th-birthday celebration, the New York City Ballet announced plans for a grand-scale future production of "Beauty," to fulfil a lifelong dream of company founders Kirstein and Balanchine.

Spurred in part by these various recent productions of the ballet most widely regarded as the ideal embodiment of choreographic classicism, the annual Dance Critics Association meeting in New York a couple of weeks ago devoted a full day and a half to a seminar on "Sleeping Beauty." Among the guest panelists were such noted interpreters of the title role as Alexandra Danilova, Violette Verdy and Kaleria Fedicheva.

Verdy, in particular, emphasized the universal significance of "Sleeping Beauty" as a ballet by talking about the protagonist's progression from innocence through mystical initiation to a full maturity of love. In his book about fairy tales, "The Uses of Enchantment," Bruno Bettelheim gets right to the point:

"The central theme of all versions of 'The Sleeping Beauty' is that, despite all attempts on the part of parents to prevent their child's sexual awakening, it will take place nonetheless ... Closely related to this is a different motif -- namely, that to wait even a long time for sexual fulfillment does not at all detract from its beauty."

In the ballet of this name, as in the Perrault nursery tale on which it was based, the heroine Princess Aurora indeed waits a hundred years, through a magic sleep invoked by the curse of a wicked fairy (Carabosse), before the kiss of a handsome prince awakens her to life and love.

The sleep commences when Aurora, dancing at her 16th-birthday party, pricks her finger on a sharpened spindle, exactly as Carabosse had predicted at the girl's christening. The "accident" occurs despite the stringent precautions taken by the King and Queen to avoid it.

In a way the moral of the tale is, as Bettelheim puts it, that "the curse {i.e., menstruation} is a blessing in disguise." And Bettelheim's Freudian exegesis is the biological subtext of the ballet, just as it is a metaphor for the spiritual awakening that is the true meaning of Tchaikovsky's music and Marius Petipa's historic choreography.

The upshot of the dance critics' seminar on "Sleeping Beauty" seemed to be that the more we learn about the ballet -- in a scholarly, historical sense -- the further we appear to get from a clear understanding of it. This isn't due to any inherent defects of scholarly knowledge; on the contrary, it's a result of the power that precise information has to resolve simplistic images into more complex, realistic detail. And because the history of ballet is so sparsely provided with reliable information, even basic facts about choreography -- what the steps are, how they fit with the music -- can often be called into question.

Compared to such other ballet classics, say, as "Swan Lake" or "Giselle," the present state of our knowledge of the choreographic "text" of "Sleeping Beauty" is relatively ample. But there are large uncertainties all the same. We do know that many changes took place while the ballet was still in process of creation, some of these quite momentous. Take, for example, the "Entr'acte" of Tchaikovsky's original score toward the end of Act 2, featuring an elaborate violin solo in the manner of a concerto.

It's an extraordinary piece of music, about seven minutes in length, intense with a kind of pained rapture and longing, and the only stretch of the entire "Sleeping Beauty" score (with the possible exception of the "Andante cantabile" of the "Vision Scene" in the same act, with its obbligato cello) that compares in depth with the profoundest parts of "Swan Lake."

We know from a telegram sent to the composer by Ivan Vsevolozhsky -- director of the Imperial Theaters, including the Maryinsky at St. Petersburg, and the scenarist of "Sleeping Beauty" -- that Tchaikovsky was asked to cut this music (because it "slows the action") just a few days before the ballet's premiere in 1890, despite the fact that it was specifically composed for celebrated virtuoso Leopold Auer, the teacher of Heifetz and Milstein.

Hence this uniquely ravishing music was not performed as part of the original production, and has been seldom integrated into later versions, though it is included in the piano score published by the Tchaikovsky Foundation, and can be heard in some of the complete recordings of the score.

One of the ballet's legatees who fully appreciated the passage was Fyodor Lopokov (1886-1973; his sister, the ballerina Lydia Lopokova, was to marry the economist John Maynard Keynes), a Russian avant-garde choreographer who was director and chief choreographer of the Kirov (formerly Maryinsky) Ballet for several periods after the Revolution beginning with 1922. One of his first moves was a revival of "Sleeping Beauty" in which he restored the violin "Entr'acte." "I am sincerely happy that these miraculous pages of Tchaikovsky's score came to be heard in the ballet," Lopokov wrote afterward. "Indeed, it is music that can be placed among his best works, on a par with the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Symphonies."

Another ballet master who was duly impressed with the "Entr'acte" was Balanchine, who was heavily influenced by Lopokov and his ideas, especially the latter's taste for abstraction in dance. In "Balanchine's Tchaikovsky," the choreographer relates to interviewer Solomon Volkov how he took this music for a duet he created for himself and Danilova, when, as a teen-ager, he was making dances for a troupe he'd formed called the Young Ballet. Balanchine effuses over the "Entr'acte" to Volkov:

"And I ... suddenly saw that the violin solo in the second act was sheer genius! Incredible music from beginning to end ... But they just threw that music out at the Maryinsky, they never played it ... If I do 'Sleeping Beauty,' that 'Entr'acte' will definitely be in it. It's incredible music, it should be played in concerts. I even suggested it to Nathan Milstein."

Balanchine mused more than once during the latter part of his career in this country about the idea of staging "Sleeping Beauty" for the New York City Ballet. He always seemed put off by the thought of the immense costs of producing the work as he'd wish to see it done, with all the extravagance of czarist largess including real onstage fountains and all manner of spectacular costumes and effects.

The violin "Entr'acte" was omitted in Diaghilev's production of 1921, the first to bring the Petipa masterwork to the western stage. It was likewise missing from subsequent landmark stagings by the Sadler's Wells, Royal and London Festival ballets. It isn't included in the new MacMillan production for ABT.

Whether, indeed, there is a current production of "Sleeping Beauty" anywhere that makes use of this music I cannot say. But it does seem remarkably strange. Imagine that "Hamlet" had come down to us in stage performances that mostly omitted "To be or not to be" -- even though Shakespeare's words were available in manuscript and published editions -- because the speech "slowed the action." The crux of the matter is that in ballet, more than in any other art form save possibly for jazz, even the most hallowed "classics" cannot be concretely, unambiguously defined for all time. Instead, each successive production or performance strives toward an ideal realization that, by definition, can never be fully attained.