The Sleeping Beauty

Ballet-féerie in 3 acts and a prologue
Music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

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

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 1888, he was approached by the Director of the Imperial Theatres, Ivan Vsevolozhsky about a possible ballet adaptation of the story Undine. However, it was later decided that the Charles Perrault fairy tale La Belle au bois dormant (Sleeping Beauty) would be the story for which Tchaikovsky would compose the music. Despite the failure of Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky did not hesitate to accept the commission.

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

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 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 other characters from Perrault’s stories into the ballet 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.

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.

The Prologue (1890)
The Prologue (1890)

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 St 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. In 1999, Sergei Vikharev utilised the Sergeyev Collection to mount a reconstruction of the 1890 Sleeping Beauty production for the Mariinsky Ballet in St Petersburg. The production made its world première on the 30th April 1999, but was met with hostility from both the Mariinsky company and St 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 1952 revival. 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.

Aurora's Bedchamber (1890)
Aurora’s Bedchamber (1890)

Did you know?

  • The Lilac Fairy’s name comes from an old Russian belief and tradition that says placing a newborn baby in their cradle under a lilac tree will bring the child great fortune and 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 in actual fact, 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.
  • At least four original cast members created two roles in The Sleeping Beauty – Marie Petipa created the roles of the Lilac Fairy and Cinderella, Enrico Cecchetti created the roles of Carabosse and the Bluebird, Anna Johansson created the roles of the Fairy Canari and the Diamond Fairy and Maria Anderson created the roles of the Fairy Fleur de farine and the White Cat.
  • For Princess Aurora’s variation in the Vision Pas d’action of the second act, Petipa rejected the music that Tchaikovsky composed because he felt it did not showcase Carlotta Brianza’s talent and abilities the way it should have. Instead, he chose the music that Tchaikovsky had composed for the Gold Fairy’s variation in the third act, which he felt was more suitable for Brianza. However, as this piece did not musically align with the preceding waltz, Riccardo Drigo was required to compose four new bars between the two numbers for the modulation into the new key. Today, many modern productions have retained Tchaikovsky’s original music for Aurora’s Act 2 variation.
  • 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.
  • Pavel Gerdt was 45 years old at the time of the 1890 première and was no longer dancing due to a knee injury, so Prince Désiré’s variation in the Grand Pas de deux was not danced. It was not until Nikolai Legat succeeded Gerdt in the role that Prince Désiré was finally given his variation.
  • According to Nikolai Legat, the role of Princess Aurora was not one that Anna Pavlova ever liked. Legat writes in his memoirs that Pavlova danced the role once in Petipa’s staging, but she found it very distasteful and never danced it again. During her 1914 tour of the United States, Pavlova danced in a four-tableaux abridgement of The Sleeping Beauty, in which she danced Aurora. In this staging, she wore heeled shoes, an impractical pannier dress and a high wig decorated with ostrich feathers and pearls that were designed by Leon Bakst. Bakst later re-used and adapted these designs for Sergei Diaghilev’s 1921 Sleeping Princess production. In 1917 and 1918 respectively, Pavlova added two ballets that were based on The Sleeping Beauty 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.
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 Prince 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 Prince 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 & Varvara Nikitina as Princess Florine (1890)

Petipa choreographed the Bluebird Pas de deux as a pas d’action in which the Bluebird is trying to help Princess Florine escape from her tower prison by teaching her how to fly. It is believed among many historians that the choreography for the Bluebird may have been choreographed by Enrico Cecchetti himself, as Cecchetti was a choreographer as well as a dancer and 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 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 perfect 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 staged for the Ballets Russes in London.

The Sleeping Beauty - Carlotta Brianza as Princess Aurora & Pavel Gerdt as Prince Desire - 1890
Carlotta Brianza as Princess Aurora & Pavel Gerdt as Prince Désiré (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.



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  • 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