The Lilac Fairy said it would be 100 years until Sleeping Beauty awakened.
It's actually taken 109.
The Kirov Ballet, the Russian company that first performed the full-length "Sleeping Beauty" in 1890, has now resurrected it.
Balletgoers thought they knew this ballet, inspired by the well-known Charles Perrault fairy tale of a spellbound princess awakened by a kiss. But before this week's performances at the Metropolitan Opera House, what they had been seeing from the Kirov company was Soviet revisionism. Only a shadow of the original czarist Russian spectacle remained. After a century of revisions, the Kirov has returned to the steps and staging of choreographer Marius Petipa, who, in collaboration with composer Peter Tchaikovsky, crafted the original.
In the early 1900s, "The Sleeping Beauty" was revived by Kirov rehearsal director Nicholas Sergeyev, who made extensive notes of Petipa's staging. He later emigrated, taking his notebooks with him. Eventually, the notebooks were purchased by Harvard University.
Meanwhile, "Sleeping Beauty" was getting blanketed with new treatments.
A pure "Soviet" look was desired instead, with more austere settings. The antiquated mime scenes were cut. More virtuoso dancing was added. The domination of good (Princess Aurora's sweet protectress, the Lilac Fairy) over evil (the wicked fairy Carabosse) was emphasized, rather than Petipa's notion of redemption.
In Petipa's original, Carabosse, whose vengefulness leads to Princess Aurora's long slumber, is later a guest at Aurora's wedding. In the Soviet version, Carabosse is never heard from after Act 2.
In recent years the Kirov seemed under a curse itself. It lost stature during the tumultuous ouster of its director, Oleg Vinogradov (also head of the local Kirov Academy of Ballet), who was accused, though not convicted, of financial improprieties. And like many state-supported institutions, it has had to deal with hard times and shrinking subsidies. Two years ago, having dusted itself off from that upheaval, the Kirov negotiated with Harvard for access to the old notes. The new version--staged by Kirov soloist Sergei Vikharev and augmented by choreography from various other productions--is the fruit of those efforts.
It is a historic moment, an outcome of newfound artistic freedom--and a gift to the world of ballet.
Resurrected here are the opulent sets and costumes of the 1890 original, the lovely passages told in pantomime and the forgiveness of Carabosse. A final apotheosis, illustrating the Greek god Apollo, ties the whole story in with the very font of Western civilization. There's a sense of cleansing, too. The dancing is less cluttered, opened up and simplified in some cases. Grandeur has been chosen over technical pizzazz. Some bits come from the notebooks, some from other choreographers. But despite the piecemeal approach, there is conceptual consistency.
Thus, scholars, historians and critics, not to mention the dance-going public, have been flocking to performances of the resulting production. (The last one was Wednesday night; the Kirov performs "Giselle," "The Fountain of Bakchisaray" and a program of George Balanchine works through July 10.)
As an added reward at Wednesday's matinee, a ballerina in the sunset of her career--the unparalleled Altynai Asylmuratova, who is nearing 40 and getting leading roles less and less often--elevated this "Beauty" and the reams of research that went into it to a spiritual level.
Things are, indeed, back to where they belong.
This is not to say that the Kirov production has no faults. At the Met, it clocked in at more than 3 1/2 hours. The ballet sags in the second act, the hunting scene, where Prince Desire sees a vision of Aurora. An extended violin solo is included, though the panorama scene it was to accompany is not included in the Met production. So the solo is played with the curtain closed and it sends the audience into a slump. It should have been cut.
The production's pleasures, though, are many. In keeping with the imperial heritage of "Sleeping Beauty," this production is a feast of material excess. The sets swallow up the huge Met stage. There are marbled rooms, ornately carved ceilings, a lush wooded setting and a depiction of the gardens of Versailles.
The costumes befit Old World royalty: richly colored in red and blue, exquisitely tucked and draped.
Above all this production succeeds by virtue of the matchless Kirov dancing. On display were the purity, uncluttered technique and especially the expansive, generous use of the arms that the world came to know through the Kirov's famous expatriates, such as Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Petipa meticulously constructed this ballet as a total classical concept. That is, the story celebrates the virtues of order, public decency and adherence to form (as distinct from the romantic ideals of the ensuing era: passionate love, emotion and creative freedom). These are mirrored in the ballet's structure--there are fast sections followed by serene ones--and internal logic. Jumps are followed by slow passages. Mime scenes lead into danced ones.
The dancers must embody this propriety, as well. This is where Asylmuratova and her cavalier, the effortless and well-mannered Andrian Fadeyev as Prince Desire, excelled. Asylmuratova has all the celebrated formal qualities: a velvety line to her legs; long, highly arched feet; silken arms; and when she dances, the music seems to come from within her body.
But she never flaunted her gifts at the expense of her role. She can hold a balance endlessly--and her extended poses, where she is poised en pointe on one leg and amplifies her position with unfathomable composure, are not just flashy "tricks," but an integral element in Petipa's concept. Balance--symmetry--is all. Simply put, Asylmuratova's understated and deeply intelligent performance was imbued with poetry, good taste and a sense of responsibility. Her Aurora could make you believe in the divine predestination of royalty.
Will the Kirov stick with this cumbersome but magnificent production?
That's not clear. But whatever the outcome, there is this: In presenting this "Sleeping Beauty" to the world, the Kirov has awakened, too. In restoring order to what had been rent by politics, bad taste and time, it has lived up to the ideals of the ballet itself.
CAPTION: In "The Sleeping Beauty," the Kirov Ballet revisits the grandeur of the original with opulent costumes and sets.