The Sleeping Beauty

Ballet-féerie in three acts with a prologue and apotheosis
Music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Libretto by Ivan Vsevolozhsky
Décor by Heinrich Levogt, Mikhail Bocharov, Ivan Andreyev, Konstantin Ivanov and Matvei Shishkov
Costumes by Ivan Vsevolozhsky

World Première
15th January [O.S. 3rd January] 1890
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, Saint Petersburg

Riccardo Drigo

Instrumental soloists
On the violin
Leopold Auer

On the harp
Albert Zabel

Original 1890 Cast
Princess Aurora
Carlotta Brianza

Prince Désiré
Pavel Gerdt

The Lilac Fairy/Cinderella
Marie Petipa

Carabosse/The Bluebird
Enrico Cecchetti

Princess Florine
Varvara Nikitina

King Florestan XIV
Felix Kschessinsky

The Queen
Giuseppina Cecchetti

Timofei Stukolkin

Based on the famous fairy tale by Charles Perrault, The Sleeping Beauty tells the story of the beautiful Princess Aurora, who is cursed at her christening by the wicked fairy, Carabosse to prick her finger on a spindle and die. Through the goodness and protection of the Lilac Fairy, instead of dying when the prophecy is fulfilled on her sixteenth birthday, Aurora falls into an enchanted sleep for a hundred years until she is finally awoken by the kiss of Prince Désiré.

Carlotta Brianza as Princess Aurora (1890)
Carlotta Brianza as Princess Aurora (1890)


The Sleeping Beauty was the first collaboration of Petipa and the great Russian composer, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Although Tchaikovsky’s first ballet Swan Lake had not been the success he had hoped for, it did not end his composition of ballets. In 1886, he was commissioned by the Director of the Imperial Theatres, Ivan Vsevolozhsky about a possible ballet adaptation of the story Undine. Despite the failure of Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky did not hesitate to accept the commission. However, by 1888, the idea of composing Undine was abandoned and Vsevolozhsky decided instead that the Charles Perrault fairy tale La Belle au bois dormant (Sleeping Beauty) would be the story for which Tchaikovsky would compose the music, an idea with which Tchaikovsky was fully on board.

The ballet libretto was written by Vsevolozhsky and was based on both the original Perrault version of Sleeping Beauty and the Brothers Grimm version entitled Little Briar Rose. In a letter to Tchaikovsky, Vsevolozhsky wrote:

I conceived the idea of writing a libretto on La Belle au bois dormant after Perrault’s fairy tale. I want to do the mise-en scène in the style of Louis XIV. Here the musical imagination can be carried away, and melodies composed in the spirit of Lully, Bach, Rameau, etc., etc. In the last act indispensably necessary is a quadrille of all of Perrault’s fairy tales.

In the Brothers Grimm version, the Princess’s parents, the King and Queen, survive the 100 year sleep and live to see their daughter’s wedding to the Prince. Vsevolozhsky also incorporated characters from other Perrault stories including Puss-in-Boots, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Ricky of the Tuft, Bluebeard, Donkeyskin and Hop-O’-My-Thumb. Other French fairy tale characters to be featured were Beauty and the Beast, Pretty Goldilocks, the White Cat, Princess Florine and the Bluebird. Tchaikovsky was happy to inform Vsevolozhsky that he had great pleasure in studying the work and had come away with adequate inspiration to do it justice.

Pavel Gerdt as Prince Désiré (1890)
Pavel Gerdt as Prince Désiré (1890)


Composition and choreography
With Petipa working as the choreographer, he and Tchaikovsky formed a great working relationship; their collaboration was far better than the one Tchaikovsky had experienced with Julius Reisinger, who had choreographed and staged the first production of Swan Lake. Petipa wrote a very detailed list of instructions as to the musical requirements and Tchaikovsky worked quickly on the new work; he began initial sketches in the winter of 1888 and began orchestration work in May 1889. Petipa, however, did not go without making changes to Tchaikovsky’s score, despite his instructions. Several music numbers in the second and third acts – the Danse des baronesses, the Danse des comtesses , the Danse des marquises, Variation of Aurora and the Entr’acte symphonique for solo violin and Variation of the Sapphire Fairy – were cut. In the third act, the lengths of the Bluebird Pas de deux, the Wedding Pas de deux and the Coda generale and the Apotheosis were shortened. The reason for these cuts and shortenings is likely because by the time Petipa was starting to work on the third act, he realised he had a very long ballet on his hands, as proven where he wrote in his notes for some numbers, “This is too long… this needs to be shorter…”, etc.

The change, however, that was made to the second act variation for Princess Aurora was for a different reason. Petipa rejected the music that Tchaikovsky composed for Aurora’s variation in the Vision Pas d’action because he felt it did not showcase Carlotta Brianza’s talent and abilities the way it should have. Brianza herself was apparently not keen on the music either and preferred the music that Tchaikovsky had composed for the Gold Fairy’s variation in the third act. Petipa also thought this music was more suitable for Brianza, so Tchaikovsky’s original variation was cut and the Variation of the Gold Fairy was transferred to the second act as the Variation of Aurora. However, this variation does not musically align with the preceding waltz, so Riccardo Drigo, who was the conductor on the night of the ballet’s première, was instructed to compose four new bars between the two numbers for the modulation into the new key.

Marie Petipa as the Lilac Fairy with Maria Egorova and Julia Kschessinskaya as her pages (1890)
Marie Petipa as the Lilac Fairy with Maria Egorova and Julia Kschessinskaya as her pages (1890)


World Première
The Sleeping Beauty
premièred on the 15th January [O.S. 3rd January] 1890 with the great Carlotta Brianza as Princess Aurora, Pavel Gerdt as Prince Désiré, Marie Petipa (Petipa’s daughter) as the Lilac Fairy and Enrico Cecchetti as both Carabosse and the Bluebird. The ballet was an enormous success, one of Petipa’s biggest and Tchaikovsky’s most successful ballet. However, there were some who feared that the new genre – the ballet-féerie – would bring about the end of ballet, as at the time, ballet was often associated with dramatic plots and character development. Nevertheless, The Sleeping Beauty remained popular with the Saint Petersburg balletomanes and by the turn of the 20th century, it was the second most popular ballet in the Imperial Ballet repertoire.

The Sleeping Beauty was notated in the Stepanov notation method ca. 1903 and is part of the Sergeyev Collection. The ballet was performed for the final time by the Imperial Ballet circa. 1918-19.


The Sleeping Beauty in the West
Prior to Petipa and Tchaikovsky’s version, there had been other ballet productions of The Sleeping Beauty in the west throughout the 19th century. The Petipa/Tchaikovsky version made its debut in the west in 1896 when it was staged by Giorgio Saracco at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. Excerpts from the ballet were staged by Sergei Diaghilev in London in 1911, with Matilda Kschessinskaya as Princess Aurora and Vaslav Nijinsky as Prince Désiré. During her tour of North, Central and South America from 1914 to 1920, Anna Pavlova and her company presented a forty-eight minute abridgment of The Sleeping Beauty, in which she danced Aurora, which premièred in New York City on the 31st August 1916. In this staging, Pavlova wore heeled shoes, an impractical pannier dress and a high wig decorated with ostrich feathers and pearls that were designed by Leon Bakst. Pavlova later added two short ballets that were based on The Sleeping Beauty and choreographed by Ivan Clustine to her company’s repertoire. These ballets were Visions, which was based on the Vision scene from the second act, and Fairy Tales, which was based on the Grand divertissements of the third act.

Enrico Cecchetti as Carabosse (1890)
Enrico Cecchetti as Carabosse (1890)

In 1921, the first 20th century full-length western production of Petipa and Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty was staged by Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes on the 2nd November at the Alhambra Theatre in London under the title The Sleeping Princess. Dancing Princess Aurora and Prince Désiré in the première were Olga Spessivtseva and Pierre Vladimirov. The décor and costumes were designed by Leon Bakst, using the same type of designs he had used for Pavlova’s costume for her abridged staging in the United States. Igor Stravinsky arranged and re-orchestrated parts of Tchaikovsky’s score, while Nikolai Sergeyev was commissioned to stage Petipa’s choreography with his notation scores, though some of Petipa’s choreography was altered by Bronislava Nijinska. One alteration made by Nijinska was the rechoreographing of the coda of the Grand Pas de deux into a character dance for three new characters called “the Three Ivans”. The production, however, was not a success and the Ballets Russes was almost left bankrupt as a result. The following year, Diaghilev staged a one-act abridgement of the full-length ballet entitled Aurora’s Wedding, which was premièred at the Théâtre National de l’Opèra in Paris on the 18th May 1922, with Vera Trefilova as Princess Aurora and Pierre Vladimirov as Prince Désiré. Aurora’s Wedding proved to be more successful than The Sleeping Princess production and remained in the Ballets Russes repertoire until the company’s disbandment in 1929.

Since Diaghilev’s production, The Sleeping Beauty has been staged in countless revivals all over the world. In 1938, Dame Ninette De Valois commissioned Nikolai Sergeyev to stage the ballet for the Vic-Wells Ballet. Like he had done with Diaghilev’s production, Sergeyev staged the choreography from his notation scores and the decors and costumes were designed by Nadia Benois, the niece of Alexandre Benois and the mother of the world-famous actor Peter Ustinov. De Valois staged the ballet under the same title as Diaghilev – The Sleeping Princess – and the production premièred on the 2nd February 1939 at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London, with Dame Margot Fonteyn as Princess Aurora and Sir Robert Helpmann as Prince Charming (Désiré).

Precious Jewels Pas de quatre - on the left: Claudia Kulichevskaya as the Gold Fairy, in the centre: Anna Johansson as the Diamond Fairy, on the right: Maria Tristova as the Sapphire Fairy and lying down: Elsa Krueger as the Silver Fairy (1890)
Precious Jewels Pas de quatre – on the left: Claudia Kulichevskaya as the Gold Fairy, in the centre: Anna Johansson as the Diamond Fairy, on the right: Maria Tristova as the Sapphire Fairy and lying down: Elsa Krueger as the Silver Fairy (1890)

Seven years later, after the end of the Second World War, the Vic-Wells Ballet, now named the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, moved to their new home theatre, the Royal Opera House. During the war, the Opera House was closed and was used as a dance hall and after the end of the war, De Valois produced a new production of The Sleeping Beauty to mark the Opera House’s reopening and the reawakening of the theatrical art form of ballet. For this production, Sergeyev once again staged the choreography and it included new choreographic alterations by De Valois and Sir Frederick Ashton. Ashton rechoreographed the Act 1 Garland Waltz and the Act 3 Precious Jewels Pas de Quatre as a pas de trois for three new characters, Prince Florestan and his sisters. De Valois also included Nijinska’s character dance for The Three Ivans and the name of the Prince was changed from Désiré to Florimund. De Valois’s new production of The Sleeping Beauty premièred on the 20th February 1946, the date of the reopening of the Royal Opera House, with Margot Fonteyn as Princess Aurora, Robert Helpmann in the roles of both Prince Florimund and Carabosse and Dame Beryl Grey as the Lilac Fairy.

De Valois’s 1946 production was kept in the repertoire until 1967 and was subsequently replaced by five different productions by Sir Peter Wright (1968), Sir Kenneth MacMillan (1973), De Valois (1977), Sir Anthony Dowell (1994) and Natalia Makarova (2003). In 2006, the Royal Ballet revived De Valois’s 1946 production; the revival premièred on the 15th May 2006, with Alina Cojocaru as Princess Aurora, Johan Kobborg as Prince Florimund, Marianela Nuñez as the Lilac Fairy and Genesia Rosato as Carabosse. Throughout these subsequent revivals, some of the most famous 20th century changes were inserted, such as the restoration of Tchaikovsky’s original variation for Aurora in the Act 2 Vision Pas d’action in 1951 in a new choreographic rendition by Ashton. In 1966, Ashton choreographed and added a new variation for the Prince into the second act, which is set to an arrangement of the music of the omitted Sarabande.

In Russia, after the 1917 Revolution, The Sleeping Beauty was the most frequently performed ballet in the former Imperial Mariinsky repertoire. The first Soviet production of the ballet was staged at the former Imperial Theatre by Fyodor Lopukhov in 1922. Thirty years later in 1952, Konstantin Sergeyev staged his production for the Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet. In these productions, perhaps the most distinctive changes of the Soviet-era came to be, with the most distinctive being the omission of the mime scenes, which resulted in the transformation of the Lilac Fairy into a purely-danced role. Like in the Royal Ballet productions, Sergeyev restored the original Act 2 variation for Aurora in his own choreographic rendition and added an Act 2 variation for Prince Désiré, which is set to the music of the Dance of the Countesses, which was cut from the 1890 production.

In 1981, George Balanchine choreographed and staged his own version of the Garland Waltz from the first act for New York City Ballet, under the title Garland Dance. The Sleeping Beauty played a very important role in Balanchine’s life because it was the first ballet he ever saw and performed in when he appeared as a cupid in the third act during his first year as a student at the Imperial Ballet School. According to John Clifford, Balanchine had always wanted to stage his own full-length production of The Sleeping Beauty, but he never did because he was unable to obtain the trap doors and machinery required for the ballet’s grand stage effects. In 1991, Balanchine’s successor Peter Martins staged his own production of The Sleeping Beauty for NYCB and inserted Balanchine’s Garland Dance into the first act.

In 1999, Sergei Vikharev utilised the Sergeyev Collection to mount a reconstruction of the 1890 Sleeping Beauty production for the Mariinsky Ballet in Saint Petersburg. The production made its world première on the 30th April 1999, but was met with hostility from both the Mariinsky company and Saint Petersburg balletomanes. Though it was kept in the Mariinsky repertoire for a number of seasons, the company has since retired the reconstruction and continues to perform in Konstantin Sergeyev’s revival. However, in 2018, the Mariinsky Ballet revived Vikharev’s reconstruction for Petipa’s bicentenary. In 2015, Alexei Ratmansky staged his own reconstruction of Petipa’s Sleeping Beauty with the Sergeyev Collection notations for American Ballet Theatre. This second reconstruction of The Sleeping Beauty was premièred in Orange County in March 2015 and was a renowned success. Ratmansky later staged his reconstruction at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, where it premièred on the 30th September 2015.

Act 1, Aurora pricks her finger: in the centre is Carlotta Brianza as Princess Aurora, Giuseppina Cecchetti as the Queen, Felix Kschessinsky as King Florestan XIV and Marie Petipa as the Lilac Fairy (1890)
Act 1, Aurora pricks her finger: in the centre is Carlotta Brianza as Princess Aurora, Giuseppina Cecchetti as the Queen, Felix Kschessinsky as King Florestan XIV and Marie Petipa as the Lilac Fairy (1890)


Did you know?

  • The Lilac Fairy’s name comes from an old Russian belief that says the lilac flower is a symbol of wisdom.
  • The purpose of the Fairy Violente pointing her fingers during her variation in the Grand Pas de six of the Prologue is that she is zapping electricity, which was new in 1890.
  • An infamous Soviet myth says that Marie Petipa did not dance as the Lilac Fairy in the Grand Pas de six. However, there is no evidence proving that she never danced in the Prologue, but rather evidence proving that she did dance (the photo of the Prologue shown above clearly shows that she is wearing pointe shoes). The myth also says that she wore only one costume for the role, but as evidence shows (among which are three surviving designs for different acts), she wore three costumes.
  • The Act 1 Garland Waltz was a huge success on its own at the 1890 première and Petipa was even called out to take a bow after its performance.
  • In the original version of the Vision Pas d’action, Aurora balances on a toe-hold in the shape of a shell, which is a reference to Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.
  • Maria Anderson was chosen by Tchaikovsky himself to create the role of the White Cat after he saw her performance as Cupid in The Vestal. The Dance of Puss-in-Boots and the White Cat was very well-received at the 1890 première and it was even encored.
  • The role of the White Cat was one of Olga Preobrazhenskaya’s favourite roles, so much so that she danced it many times, even after she had become Prima Ballerina.
  • A piece that is absent from modern productions is the Sarabande that, as shown by the 1890 libretto, was a dance for groups of couples representing the Roman, Persian, Indian, American and Turkish nationalities. However, the 1891/92 Imperial Theatre yearbook seemingly states that by 1891, this number was no longer used in The Sleeping Beauty, so therefore, it can only be assumed that it was cut from the ballet sometime after the 1890 première.
The Apotheosis (1890)
The Apotheosis (1890)


Bluebird Pas de deux

The characters Princess Florine and the Bluebird come from the famous French fairy tale, L’Oiseau bleu (The Bluebird) by Madame d’Aulnoy, which tells the story of a king who falls in love with the beautiful Princess Florine, much to the dismay of her wicked stepmother, who imprisons Florine in a tower. When the King rejects Florine’s ugly stepsister, Truitonne, he is transformed into a bluebird by Truitonne’s wicked fairy godmother and courts Florine in her tower. The music for the Bluebird Pas de deux was originally composed by Tchaikovsky as a pas de quatre for two couples – Princess Florine and the Bluebird and Cinderella and Prince Fortuné. In the end, however, Petipa chose to use the music as a pas de deux for Princess Florine and the Bluebird, while Cinderella and Prince Fortuné were given their own dance.

Enrico Cecchetti as the Bluebird and Varvara Nikitina as Princess Florine (1890)
Enrico Cecchetti as the Bluebird and Varvara Nikitina as Princess Florine (1890)

Petipa choreographed the Bluebird Pas de deux as a pas d’action, in which the Bluebird is teaching Princess Florine how to fly, so she can escape from her tower prison. It is believed among many historians that the choreography for the Bluebird may have been choreographed by Enrico Cecchetti, himself, as it was very common at the time for the male dancers to choreograph their own variations. Cecchetti’s performance as the Bluebird caused a sensation at the 1890 première.

In some modern productions, both Princess Florine and the Bluebird are often portrayed as birds, but that is not the case in Petipa’s staging. The notation shows that while there is obviously much flying and bird-like references in the choreography for the Bluebird, there are little to none for Princess Florine, which makes sense since she is the human one of the couple. The only flying reference for Princess Florine happens at the very end of the coda when she performs a jété and exits, followed by the Bluebird, which shows that she has succeeded in learning how to fly.


Grand Pas de deux

Just like with the Bluebird Pas de deux, Petipa choreographed the Grand Pas de deux, also known as the Wedding Pas de deux, as a pas d’action because there is action as well as dancing. The purpose of this is that by this point of the act, the story has returned after a long series of divertissements. The notation states that during the adage, Désiré and Aurora mime to each other; Aurora mimes, “I will dance with him,” and Désiré replies with “I love her and will marry her” and following this is a passage that has been changed in modern productions. Instead of Aurora performing a penché arabesque supported by Désiré, the couple simply embraces one another. It makes sense for Petipa to have included intimacy between the two characters as it shows their character development and it gives the act the intimate and romantic feeling that a wedding should have as the bride and groom declare their love for each other. Another passage from modern times is the famous fish-dives, which were added by Pierre Vladimirov to Diaghilev’s Sleeping Princess production. However, Vera Trefilova, one of the ballerinas who danced Aurora in The Sleeping Princess, refused to perform the fish-dives, dismissing them as an “acrobatic feat” and stayed true to Petipa’s original sequence of a double pirouette into développé à la seconde.

Carlotta Brianza as Princess Aurora and Pavel Gerdt as Prince Desire with two students as pages (1890)
Carlotta Brianza as Princess Aurora and Pavel Gerdt as Prince Desire with two students as pages (1890)

There is some confusion regarding a change Petipa made to the music of the Grand Pas de deux. Tchaikovsky originally composed the piece as a pas de deux classique with an entrée, adage, a male variation, a female variation and a coda, but Petipa inserted a dance for two of the Four Jewel Fairies – the Gold Fairy and the Sapphire Fairy. The notation states that the Gold and Sapphire Fairies danced to a number in 6/8 after the adage, but the only music in 6/8 is the entrée, most of which was cut from the first production. This leaves the question as to what music the fairies danced to and it can only be assumed that it was the entrée music, but it cannot be known for sure what music Petipa used in 1890.

At the 1890 première, the Variation of Prince Désiré was not performed. This was due to the fact that Pavel Gerdt, who was 45 years old at the time, was no longer dancing due to a knee injury. It was not until Nikolai Legat succeeded Gerdt in the role around the late 1890s, early 1900s that Prince Désiré was finally given his variation. Legat’s variation has survived as it was notated and is part of the Sergeyev Collection and is clearly the basis of the traditional variation commonly danced in modern productions.


Related pages



  • Garafola, Lynn (1989) Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. USA: 1998 ed. Da Capro Press, Inc.
  • Kant, Marion/Various (2007) The Cambridge Companion to Ballet. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press
  • Legat, Nikolai (1939) Ballet Russe: Memoirs of Nikolai Legat. London, UK: Methuen
  • Pritchard, Jane with Hamilton, Caroline (2012) Anna Pavlova: Twentieth-Century Ballerina. London, UK: Booth-Clibborn Editions
  • Racster, Olga (1923) Master of the Russian Ballet – The Memoirs of Enrico Cecchetti. Hampshire, UK: Noverre Press
  • Scholl, Tim (1994) From Petipa to Balanchine: Classical Revival and the Modernization of Ballet. Abingdon, Oxfordshire, UK: Routledge
  • Scholl, Tim (2004) Sleeping Beauty: A Legend in Progress. New Haven and London: Yale University
  • Wiley, Roland John (1985) Tchaikovsky’s Ballets: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press
  • Wiley, Roland John (2007) A Century of Russian Ballet. Alton, Hampshire, UK: Dance Books Ltd