You know the timeless story: in a castle surrounded by vines deep in a forest, a brave prince finds a princess who has been cursed to sleep for a hundred years, but he breaks the spell with a kiss. It is a story that has been told and told for generations. Texas Ballet Theater draws crowds The The Sleeping Beauty at the Winspear Opera House this weekend. For non-balletomaniacs, this ballet may seem a little different than what you’re used to. But make no mistake, this work is nearly a hundred years older than its Disney counterpart.
With its instantly recognizable score and ubiquitous storyline, The The Sleeping Beauty is a treat for dance lovers and novices alike. The Texas Ballet Theater version is set to Tchaikovsky’s score, performed live by the Dallas Opera Orchestra. TBT’s artistic director, Ben Stevenson, OBE, choreographs the ballet based on Petipa’s standard choreography. Its deliciously opulent sets and costumes, sent by the Boston Ballet and designed by David Walker, make the stage a spectacle. Stevenson is a master of the art form, and his clever choreography and precise staging transport this classic into the 21st century.
The ballet is divided into a prologue and three acts with three intermissions. The prologue sets the stage for the rest of the ballet. The court meets in the palace to celebrate the baptism of Princess Aurora. Six visiting fairies arrive to give gifts to the princess, such as the bounty fairy or the charm fairy. In this way, the ballet allows the dancers to show off, with many more solos than most ballets. Stevenson’s attention to detail is key here, as each fairy’s variation is styled to reflect the gifts she gives. Fairy Beauty’s movements are dripping with grace, while Fairy Song moves surprisingly fast on a flute that vibrates like a canary. The Lilac Fairy is the most powerful of all fairies – for Disney lovers imagine she embodies the powers of Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather all rolled into one – and she’s the last to present her gift. Before she can, the party is interrupted by Carabosse, a dark fairy who is furious at not being invited.
Carabosse is the dynamic force of ballet. In many other versions of this ballet, his character is underused, portrayed strictly through pantomime without any dancing or pointe shoes. Stevenson’s version adds meat to the character in such a powerfully evil way that it’s almost delicious. She arrives on a horse-drawn carriage pulled by monsters and insists on humiliating the attendant in charge of the guest list, literally ripping off his wig. As she dances, you get the impression that she is excited to make a scene. She wants to ruin the evening, which she does by casting a spell for Aurora to die on her sixteenth birthday. The ever-royal lilac fairy intervenes, using her intended gift to save the princess, who will instead fall into a deep sleep.
Act One opens with a breathtaking scene in the palace garden, complete with magnificent columns and greenery, as the kingdom comes together to celebrate the princess’s birthday. The scene opens with the famous “Garland Waltz”, with the Corps de ballet wearing large wreaths of flowers as they move in interlocking patterns. Jack Lawrence and Sammy Fain, the composer behind Disney The The Sleeping Beauty, used this melody as the basis for the song “Once Upon a Dream”. Four foreign princes, resplendent in their finery, await the arrival of Aurora.
Aurora’s Entrance is one of the most delicate and rapid variations of classical ballet. The choreography requires precise footwork and delicate lightness. She is bursting with excitement, timidly gazing at the princes who await her. The king informs her that she is going to marry one of these gentlemen and that everyone will have the opportunity to woo her in the “Rose Adagio”. Aurora greets each suitor and they all present her with roses. Deceptively difficult, this section is emblematic of ballet, where Aurora balances on one foot cutting edge with the other leg extended behind her, letting go of her partner’s hand for a brief moment to balance herself in a dizziness attitude. Balletomaniacs await this moment, eagerly awaiting her solo balance, and novices will be amazed at her ability to soar as if suspended. This is one of the most difficult sections of the ballerina partnership, and one of the most exquisite.
An old old woman, masked by a cloak, presents Aurora with a bouquet of flowers, which, of course, hides a spindle. She pricks her finger and begins to succumb. Stevenson makes expert use of this section; Even as Aurora fades away, she displays her gentle spirit by assuring her parents that she is fine. Carabosse happily reveals herself as the old woman, unaffected by the anger of the crowd. The villagers wrap him in trembling fists; for a moment she towers over the crowd, then suddenly she leaves.
Will Aurora ever wake up from her sleep? You know the story. Act 2 introduces us for the first time to our prince, Prince Florimond. One hundred years later, while in the forest with his hunting party, the prince sinks into contemplation. The lilac fairy appears to him, inaugurating a vision of the princess. The couple dance with palpable desire, Florimund dreaming of love and Aurora hoping he could lift the curse. She walks in and out of a flock of beautiful nymphs, beckoning Florimund to come closer to her castle. An enraged Carabosse tries to embarrass the prince, but she is easily defeated and his kiss wakes the princess from her sleep.
The final act is the icing on the cake, essentially the reception of the Aurora-Florimund wedding. The cheerful couple are joined by a group of fairy-tale characters, like the Blue Bird and Princess Florise, whom he teaches to fly. The little ones will be delighted by the Puss in Boots and his girlfriend, the White Cat, who play and hit each other while dancing. The pas de deux between the Prince and Aurora is extremely romantic; she throws herself with wild abandon in his arms and he surprises her every time in a plunge.
Stevenson demands a lot from his dancers, and there is no exception in this exasperatingly difficult ballet. The Texas Ballet Theater is filled with an array of diverse body types – the Bluebird is about a foot taller than her partner, even when she is cutting edge, for example – but the corps de ballet is uniform and precise, without an out of place finger.
Viewers will be inundated with lavish sets and costumes. Watch out for the repeated patterns in the choreography: Stevenson’s performance especially increases character development. The choreographer lets his dancers really dance, showing the story through easy-to-understand movements, rather than camouflaging it in layers of pantomime. You don’t have to be a ballet lover to be blown away by this performance.
Texas Ballet Theater presents The Sleeping Beauty in Dallas at Winspear Opera House September 6-8 and in Fort Worth at Bass Performance Hall October 18-20. Find tickets here.