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A Review of the “Sleeping Beauty” Premiere

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All the discussions and reviews of Ratmansky’s reconstructed “Sleeping Beauty” are quite fascinating. To add to the mix, here is my translation of one of the earliest (perhaps the very earliest?) reviews of this ballet. It’s by D.D. Korovyakov and appeared in “The News and Exchange Gazette” on January 5, 1890 (old style), two days after the premiere. It is reprinted in a book by O. Petrov called “Russkaya baletnaya kritika vtoroi poloviny XIX veka: Peterburg”. It has been quoted quite extensively by various historians and critics (e.g., by Marina Harss in her recent New York Times article), but I have not seen a full English translation so I decided to translate it myself. Enjoy!


The fairy tales of Perrault, in the poeticism of their descriptions, have always represented a beloved and rich material for draftsmen, painters, tableau vivants, costume balls, and the like. Our current administration has been seduced by this material as well, having adopted as a motto the exterior beauty of the stage furnishings. To be fair, the material ended up in good hands, and it turned out to be a brilliant spectacle. Apart from the luxuriousness of the costumes taken to extreme limits, a lot of taste and artistic talent is spent on the staging of the new ballet “The Sleeping Beauty” given for the first time January 3 on the stage of the Mariinsky Theater. Silk, velvet, plush, gold and silver embroidery, marvelous brocade materials, furs, feathers and flowers, knightly armor and metal adornments are generously lavished, without counting, on the adornment of even tertiary characters. In the prologue, during the christening of the newborn Princess Aurora, whom kind fairies bestow with all the virtues, together with “genii bringing fragrances” and “young girls bringing gifts”, as the stage bill says—the court of Aurora’s happy parent, King Florestan XIV, is luxuriously dressed in knightly garbs from the Middle Ages; the same style is kept in the costumes of the fairies, their retinue and pages, with those light modulations required for fantastical beings that supply barely perceptible but very poetic character to the visages and events from the fairy tale world. Especially good are the costumes of the Lilac Fairy, and in them Ms. Petipa is astoundingly beautiful. The costumes of the first act, in which Princess Aurora appears as an already grown-up damsel who rejects the suits of four admirers-princes: Chéri, Charmant, Fortuné, and Fleur-de-Pois, preferring carefree dancing and frolicking, until the magic of the evil sorceress Carabosse plunges her into a deathlike slumber and the kind king and his court into despair — belongs to the same era (Ms. Brianza is dressed in a sumptuous red costume, embroidered with gold and with gold brocades, which suits her very much), whereas the costumes of subsequent acts move the action several centuries forward, and the hunt of Prince Désiré (second act) brings us directly into the golden age of Louis XIV, with affected marquises and curled cavaliers. The awakening of the Princess and all her sleeping kingdom leads, of course, to a wedding, which comes to pass in the last act, in the presence of the entire court of the Sun King (aka Florestan XIV) and the characters of all the Perrault’s tales, starting form “Tom Thumb” and until “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Puss in Boots” inclusively. The rich costumes of the Sarabands are also made extremely well: Roman, Persian, Indian, American, and Turkish—these foreign nations were understood by the artists of Louis XIV and were depicted in the courtly celebrations and carrousels at Versailles.

Perhaps for greater identification of the court of the fairy-tale King Florestan with the court of the Sun King, the last act happens on an esplanade behind which the scenery reproduces with perfect exactness the Grand Palace of Versailles with terraces, fountains, carrousel ground, grand pièce d’eau, and other luxurious contrivances of King Louis. Incidentally, this set requires the stage depth much larger than that at the Mariinsky Theater, and because of this the work of the talented Professor Shishkov does not make the effect to which it would be entitled with a large perspective. Mr. Levot painted the scenery of the Prologue (Florestan’s palace), Messrs. Andreyev and Bocharov of the first act (palace garden), but they did not create anything especially prominent compared to their prior work. Not bad is also the scenery of the interior of the palace of the Sleeping Beauty of Mr. Ivanov, with many years’ dust, overgrown with moss, petrified in deep sleep, and then immediately turning into a fresh, bright hall, with a fireplace merrily ablaze. This transformation, as well as the graduate overgrowth of the enchanted castle with a forest and the moving panorama of landscapes in the second act, produced curtain calls for the machinist Mr. Berger and for Mr. Bocharov who painted quite characteristic and talented landscapes of the panorama, depicting wild surroundings that Désiré swims past on his way to the enchanted castle in a boat with the Lilac Fairy. We must admit that from the point of view of theatrical glamor and wonders of the machinery of our ballet stage, we were not satisfied by either the panorama or the transformations. The movement of a split decor between the public and a stationary boat, while the foreground decor is completely stationary, gives a very weak illusion, much smaller than during the movement of the backdrop, and this device has been applied more than once both in ballet (“The Little Humpbacked Horse”) and in the Zoological Gardens, with no smaller, perhaps even greater, effect. The exterior view of the castle overgrows with a forest via the raising up to the proscenium of a split curtain, little by little and slowly concealing the stage from the eyes of the public, like a regular curtain, but from below instead of from above; the transformation of a sleeping and dead palace into a revived one and the changing à vue of the view of the castle’s courtyard into a hall is done during a very lengthy pause, behind a cloudy tulle curtain and while the stage is completely dark.

As you see, when talking about the new ballet, first and foremost one must talk about its mounting, which, indeed, is of predominant significance in it. Its choreographic part is not great; in the entire ballet there are 14 dance numbers among which the ballerina dances a pas d’action three times. The dances of Ms. Brianza were performed by her brilliantly in distinctiveness, force, and grace, although in their composition there is nothing new or particularly beautiful. The same poverty of conception distinguish the big general pas in the Prologue, the variations in allegro of the six Prologue fairies, and the pas de quatre of the four fairies in the last act: long-familiar cabrioles and entrechats, but this time without those graceful artistic devices that always distinguish our balletmaster’s talent. We must recognize the waltz of the first act as more successful and, in tableaux, quite picturesque. The tableau of the sleeping castle is good, although Doré helped the choreographer quite a bit. The most interesting are the period dances that carry the stamp of knowledge and taste of Mr. Petipa, the farandole and variations of the ladies-in-waiting during Prince Désiré’s hunt (“The Huntresses” is what it is called in the stage bill) and the divertissement of the fairly tale characters in the last act. Ms. V.A. Nikitina superbly danced her pas de deux with Mr. Cecchetti and was received by the public in a way that the public always receives their graceful darling. The dance of the Puss-in-Boots (Mr. Bekefi) and the White Cat (Ms. Anderson) was performed charmingly and was repeated. Ms. Zhukova the 1st is delightful in naïve gracefulness as the Little Red Riding Hood with the Wolf (Mr. Lukyanov), Ms. Petipa is a very pretty Cinderella, dancing with Prince Fortuné (Mr. Krzesiński the 2nd) an entire little scene which characterizes very well the content of the tale, and the children depicting Petit Poucet with brothers at the ogre’s are very entertaining. The concluding coda and saraband turned into a mazurka seems very strange, as its appropriateness at Versailles is arguable. We are silent about the music of the ballet which belongs to the inspiration of P.I. Tchaikovsky, leaving it to the competent analysis of our music critic.

Summing up the impression that the new ballet left with a spectator, one must admit that an artistically sensitive taste does not get satisfied. We said at the beginning of this article that Perrault’s tales are good material for an external spectacle due to the poetics of their descriptions, but their inner content, in its lack of complexity, its simplicity and childlike naiveté, cannot give nourishment to the imagination necessary for composing a program for a large ballet of the type to which our public has gotten accustomed to during many decades. We are ready to sit for four hours in a theater, but under the condition that the ballet be substantive in every sense of artistic core, mimic tasks and a certain dramatic character of situations, which give ballet the right to be ranked with other fine arts. Whereas if ballet will be only a spectacle, a motley kaleidoscope of costumes and scenery, then no luxuriousness of the staging will redeem its emptiness, vacuity, and the boredom that inevitably by the end of it comes over any “adult”, not to mention an aesthetically developed spectator. Risking to seem a rigorist in art, we cannot avoid to be sorry about the path chosen by our theater administration in the cause of lowering the artistry of our ballet.

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You're welcome!

From the last paragraph, it sounds like Korovyakov agrees with Wendy Perron.

Correct, it sure does sound that way!

And in reading that paragraph, I couldn't help but wonder which ballets of the preceding "many decades" he deemed worthy of being "ranked with other fine arts".

Quite astonishing, too, is that he is unable or unwilling to say anything at all about Tchaikovsky's music which we now know to be a hugely important milestone for ballet, especially for ballet in St. Petersburg. The Moscow public had been exposed to Tchaikovsky's ballet music via a production of "Swan Lake", but for the St. Petersburg public this seems to have been the first encounter with it, after years and years of Pugni-Minkus-type ballet music. This review as well as other historical accounts suggest that some of them were not that impressed!

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I, too, find this fascinating. Based on various reviews of the time, it appears that it was not uncommon for the St. Petersburg public back then to demand a number they liked to be repeated, or to cause a member of the production team to take a bow in the middle of a performance. According to Wiley’s book “Tchaikovsky’s Ballets,” Petipa was called for a bow after the “garland waltz” during the premiere. I find all this quite remarkable, for a couple of reasons. First, it shows how different the tastes were back then. These days it is hard to imagine a “Sleeping Beauty” audience anywhere in the world that, of all the dances in this ballet, would cause an encore of the dance of the White Cat and the Puss-in-Boots. Second, it shows how much more passionate the St. Petersburg audiences were in the 19th century. Nowadays the applause in the middle of a performance is rarely persistent enough to cause anything out of ordinary to occur, and on those occasions that it does, it is a repeat of some virtuoso feat, like 32 fouettés.

Incidentally, in her memoirs, Kschessinska mentions that a particular dance of hers in “Talisman” would always be repeated four or five times, and describes the protocol as follows.

Dancers were allowed to give two or even more encores; there were no restrictions. But when the Tsar and Tsarina were present, if the audience demanded a third encore, we had to turn to the Imperial Box and wait for a signal from the Emperor and Empress. The Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna liked Le Talisman and came to almost every performance. When she nodded her consent I curtsied low and re-embarked on my coda to a veritable storm of applause. The Grand Duke Serge Mikhailovitch told me that the Empress consulted him every time, asking him if I was strong enough to give another encore of the coda; to which he used to reply that the very fact that I was waiting for her consent proved that I had sufficient strength.

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It is very easy to lose sight of the changes that were going on at the Maryinsky Theatre in the years leading up to the premier of the Sleeping Beauty because we approach the story looking back into the nineteenth century from the perspective of our knowledge of the twentieth century developments in the art form rather than trying to see it as it was to its first nineteenth century audiences as a new ballet rather than a work of art of iconic status.

As we are familiar with ballet history written from the perspective of the twentieth century in which the Tchaikovsky ballet scores are seen as the culmination of the development of nineteenth century ballet music and Petipa as the choreographer who provides the basis from which the choreographers of the twentieth century such as Balanchine and Ashton develop it is difficult to detach ourselves from that apparently clear story of evolution.

The reality seems to be that there were a lot of changes going on at that theatre in the years leading up the Sleeping Beauty's premier in 1890.There was the retirement of Minkus in 1886 and the appearances of Virginia Zucchi who impressed audiences with her acting ability and revived interest in ballet as a serious art form. The ballets that she appeared in were story ballets rather than ballets simply constructed to display technique.Perhaps it was inevitable that a ballet audience who had grown up watching ballets like Paquita, Le Corsaire and La Fille du Pharon were going to find Sleeping Beauty lacking in interest because the story as summed up by a member of the early audience is "They dance, sleep, wake up and dance again". I do not think that it is strange that the music may not have been to everyone's taste as it is so far removed from what everyone expected to hear as part of a ballet performance at that time.If dancers felt that the music was not "dansant" then there is every reason to suppose that

a fair proportion of the first audiences might also have found it disconcerting as a ballet score.

Whether or not this new ballet was to your taste was almost certainly a generational thing.Our tastes are formed in large part by what we see when we first go to the ballet and however open to new developments we manage to remain we will, at some level, still be influenced by that initial experience throughout our lives. A man born in 1849, as Korovyakov was, had begun his ballet going in the long afterglow of the romantic ballet while Bakst(born 1866) and Diaghilev(born 1872) who were a generation younger were no doubt more open to the developments that were taking place. It would be interesting to know the ages of those who did not appreciate it and complained about its lack of dance content. The generation that were involved in the 1921 London production of Sleeping Beauty were young when it was new and we have adopted their opinion of the ballet, its iconic status and much more.

There are those who, even today, believe that it is short on narrative content.It is ironic that the section of the ballet that Korovyakov seemed to appreciate most, the suite of dances in the hunt scene is the one that is the first to be rigorously pruned in many revivals today on the grounds of its lack of serious dance content.

I have found reading the comments of those who dislike the Ratmansky production most interesting and not that different from the russian audiences who disliked the Maryinsky reconstruction. In both cases the negative response is triggered by attachment to a certain method of executing steps bolstered in the case of the Maryinsky revival by the belief that what they had grown up with was the authentic text and in the case of the ABT revival attachment to the current fashion for extreme extensions. I wonder how different it looks stylistically from the film of the RB's 1977 revival which surfaces on Youtube from time to time.

As far as encores are concerned I understand that Brian Shaw was required to encore at least part of the Bluebird's choreography when the Royal Ballet toured Russia for the first time.

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As far as encores are concerned I understand that Brian Shaw was required to encore at least part of the Bluebird's choreography when the Royal Ballet toured Russia for the first time.

And I re-call Raissa Struchkova encoring "Spring Waters" when the Bolshoi first came to America.

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