Choreography: Marius Petipa
Music: Peter I. Tchaikovsky
Staged By: John Taras
Lighting: Joseph Appelt
Aurora’s Wedding is essentially Act III of “La Bella au Bois Dormant” (The Sleeping Beauty), originally produced by the Imperial Russian Ballet at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1890.
Lavish in design with sumptuous sets and costumes, The Sleeping Beauty, rivaled only by Swan Lake, is the most beloved choreographed by Marius Petipa, the controlling master of Russian ballet for 50 years. It was Tchaikovsky’s favorite of all his ballet compositions.
The story is the familiar Perrault fairy tale:
PROLOGUE: A baby girl, Princess Aurora, is born to a King and Queen. Among the royal entourage invited to the christening are the seven good Fairies of the kingdom. Each Fairy brings a magical gift. The first decrees that Aurora shall be the most beautiful girl in the world. The second, that she should have the temper of an angel. The third, that she should do everything with wonderful grace. The fourth, that she should dance to perfection. The fifth, that she should sing like a nightingale. The sixth, that she should play every kind of musical instrument with utmost skill. Before the seventh Fairy (Lilac Fairy) could bestow her gift, a wicked Fairy storms into the castle. Infuriated that she was not invited to the festivities, the Witch vengefully decrees that Aurora shall prick her finger and die before reaching adulthood. The Lilac Fairy intercedes and declares that the Princess shall not die but merely fall into a profound sleep until a Prince shall awaken her with a kiss.
ACT I The Spell: At the celebration of the Princess Aurora’s 16th birthday, all transpires as predicted. Aurora pricks her finger on a spindle, falls in a faint and is carried into the palace. Slowly everyone falls asleep as foliage and brambles grow up around the castle.
ACT II The Vision: One hundred years later, a Prince eludes his royal hunting party in the woods. The Lilac Fairy appears to him, tells him the story of the sleeping beauty, the Prince implores the Lilac Fairy to lead him to the castle. He finds the Sleeping Princess and kisses her. As Aurora awakens, the entire court comes back to life. The King and Queen promise their daughter in marriage to the Prince as his reward for breaking the enchantment.
ACT III The Wedding: The King and Queen invite quests from Poland, the court, all the Fairies and their cavalier to the wedding festivities. There is more dancing than marriage ceremony, such that it is critical to know the story for it is portrayed very abstractly.
In 1921, Serge Diaghilev staged a Ballets Russes revival of The Sleeping Beauty as The Sleeping Princess in London. It was an opulent production with sets and costumes designed by Leon Bakst. The ballet was supposed to run for six months with alternating casts of Russian soloists, but the production was forced to close after 115 performances because of lack of attendance.
Diaghilev left London deeply in debt, owing 11,000 pounds to Sir Oswald Stoll, who had advanced the money to stage the ballet at the Alhambra Theater. Sir Oswald took legal action to have the ballet’s sets and costumes sequestered.
Diaghilev had already signed a contract to take The Sleeping Princess to the Paris Opera in May, 1922. When Sir Oswald impounded the scenery and costumes, it was impossible to consider trying to do the complete ballet. To make matters worse, Diaghilev had virtually no company. After leaving London, he had been obliged to give all his dancers an indefinite leave of absence because of a lack of funds. Finally, Diaghilev agreed to present the last act of The Sleeping Princess, under the title of Aurora’s Wedding, replacing the Bakst designs with borrowed scenery and costumes.
The Sleeping Princess was never again performed by the Diaghilev company Les Ballets Russe but after the death of Diaghilev in 1929 it reappeared in the newly formed Colonel de Basil Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo as Aurora’s Wedding.
Todd Bolender recalls the hunger of dancers for the classics in the 1930’s.
“Catherine Littlefield’s Philadelphia Ballet did produce Sleeping Beauty then,” he said, “but it was not presented again until Ninette de Valois mounted the production for the Royal Ballet in the late 40’s. I went to London to see it before it toured in the U.S.”
“In my growing-up-years-in dance, no one could afford to put on elaborate productions, and there really weren’t any ballet companies. (American) Ballet Theatre didn’t get started until 1941, and then came the war. New York City Ballet really came after the war.”
“George (Balanchine) and (Alexandra) Danilova performed with Diaghilev with the Ballets Russes company after leaving Russia, and Balanchine consequently brought many of the great performances to teach at the School. (Felia Doubrovska, Ludmilla Schollar, Pierre Vladimirov, all former soloists with the Imperial Russian Ballet and the Ballets Russes, were among Bolender’s teachers at the School of American Ballet.) While George preferred to set his own choreography onstage for the New York City Ballet, the classics were presented at the workshop.”
John Taras, who with Danilova staged Aurora’s Wedding for the School of American Ballet’s workshop, has staged the work for the Kansas City Ballet.
According to Bolender in the original Russian production of Sleeping Beauty, the Florestan pas de quatre was called The Jewels, and the dances were performed by four ballerinas, named Silver, Gold, Diamond and Sapphire. In Diaghilev’s London production, this section was danced by Pierrette, Columbine, Pierrot and Harlequin-two men and two women. In Diaghilev’s Paris version of Aurora’s Wedding, this dance became a pas de trios for one man, Florestan, and his Two Sisters. For the Kansas City Ballet version, Bolender has again restaged this dance for four, but with three women and one man.
“Oddly enough,” said Bolender, “the steps have remained virtually the same. The sections, which are mostly jumps, lend themselves to either men or women, and the dances which are performed on pointe have been done by women in all versions.”
“The pas de deux of the Bluebird and the Enchanted Princess, as well as the grand pas de deux of Princess Aurora and Prince Charming remain as close to the original Petipa choreography as possible. Both excerpts have always been popular with the public, and are frequently performed out of context.”
“The Polish guests who introduce the act with the Polonaise, conclude the ballet with a mazurka, which all guests and principals join for a rousing finale.”
Bolender hopes eventually to mount the complete Sleeping Beauty for the Kansas City Ballet repertoire.
“It is great work,” he said. “Musically, I consider it Tchaikovshy’s best. And, in the classical tradition, it would be a superb experience for the dancers. To perform such roles is like recreating history. Dancers still hunger for that experience. I’m merely testing the waters with Aurora’s Wedding.”
The Sleeping Beauty is known to have been performed in its entirety by American Ballet Theatre*, the former Washington ballet, Houston, Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, Atlanta Ballet and is currently in production by Ballet West.
*Todd Bolender and John Taras danced in the Ballet Theatre production of Aurora’s Wedding in the 40’s and with Catherine Littlefield’s Philadelphia Ballet Company.