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

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 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, during rehearsals for his opera The Enchantress, 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 was more in favour of a ballet with a French subject. Eventually, he set his sights on the Charles Perrault fairy tale La Belle au bois dormant (Sleeping Beauty) as the story for which Tchaikovsky would compose the music, an idea with which Tchaikovsky was fully on board. In a letter to Tchaikovsky on the matter, 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.

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.

The fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty is one of the most classic of stories that has been widely known for centuries. The earliest known version is found in the prose romance Perceforest, which was written between 1330 and 1344, though it also appears in the myth of the Norse goddess Brunhilde. The story was first written as a fairy tale entitled Sun, Moon and Talia by the Italian writer Giambattista Basile and was published in 1634 in his collection Il Pentamerone. Basile’s variant was later retold and published by Charles Perrault in 1697 under the title Sleeping Beauty and it was again retold by the Brothers Grimm in 1812 under the title Little Briar Rose. The fairy tale was first adapted into a ballet by Ferdinand Hérold and Jean-Louis Aumer and was staged at the Paris Opéra on the 27th April 1829, with Lisa Noblet as the Princess Iseult and Marie Taglioni appearing in one scene as a naiad. Aumer and Hérold’s Sleeping Beauty was later staged in London on the 13th February 1833 at Drury Lane, with Pauline Duvernay as the Princess.

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

For the new Sleeping Beauty ballet for the Imperial Theatres, Vsevolozhsky wrote the libretto, basing it on both the original Perrault fairy tale and the Brothers Grimm version. In the latter 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. Vsevolozhsky was clearly adamant for this new ballet to have a strong French subject in every way possible and he succeeded, but he also provided strong links between France and Russia: the choreographer was a Frenchman, the composer, librettist, décor and costume designers were Russian, the libretto was a French fairy tale and the ballet was set in France during one of the country’s most famous eras in history – the era of King Louis XIV, which is the time period of the second and third acts.

In many ways, The Sleeping Beauty provided the ultimate cultural bridge between Russia and France, an epitome of Vsevolozhsky’s Francophilia. Prior to his appointment as Director of the Imperial Theatres, Vsevolozhsky had worked for five years at the Russian Consulate in Paris, during which, he developed a sincere adoration for the country. His tenure as Director saw the creation of at least several ballets with a French subject, with The Sleeping Beauty perhaps being the brightest and most precious of Vsevolozhsky’s French artistic jewels.

The Prologue (1890)
The Prologue (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. 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. Tchaikovsky would often visit Petipa at home and play for him the music that he had composed, for which Petipa would give him feedback. 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 the talents and abilities of the original Aurora Carlotta Brianza 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.

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

The structure of The Sleeping Beauty is quite typical of a ballet-féerie – it begins with a Prologue in which the baby princess is christened, blessed by her fairy godmothers in a Grand Pas de six and is then cursed by the Wicked Fairy in a dramatic mime scene. The first act takes place on her birthday and contains two of the ballet’s most famous numbers – the Garland Waltz and the Pas d’action known as the Rose Adagio, in which four suitors vie for Aurora’s hand, but none are successful. The Rose Adagio is especially famous for the difficult balances en pointe performed by Aurora as she is passed from prince to prince. This emphasis on steely pointe work is found at least twice in The Sleeping Beauty, showing how Petipa had evolved as a choreographer. The second act consists of his traditional Vision scene in which the Lilac Fairy shows Prince Désiré a vision of Princess Aurora and the Prince falls in love. One of the most interesting moments of the Vision Pas d’action is when Aurora balances on a toe-hold in the shape of a shell, which is a reference to Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. This wonderful stage trick is another emphasis of steely pointe work, showing that by the 1880s, Petipa was no longer interested in the lightness and airiness of the Romantic Era and was fully experimenting with the steely pointe work of the Classical Era.

Perhaps the most lavish act of the ballet was the third act, in which the wedding of Désiré and Aurora takes place at the Palace of Versailles. The theme of the wedding is French fairy tales, with the most distinctive of the guests being the characters of other Perrault and French fairy tales included by Vsevolozhsky and the Grand divertissement in which they partake. The wedding also acted as an epitome of happily ever after for all the characters as Carabosse, the Lilac Fairy and the other Good Fairies are all in attendance, symbolising that the two sides of good and evil have been balanced. The third act also contained a number entitled the Sarabande, which, 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, which may also explain why it is not used in modern productions. The ballet came to a close with a splendid apotheosis entitled Helios en costume de Louis XIV, éclairé par le soleil entouré des fées, in which the fairies are shown on a clouded backdrop underneath Helios the Sun God in his chariot, a reference to Louis XIV’s role as the Sun King when he was a dancer.

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)


When it came time to decide the casting for the new ballet, the directorate at first struggled to find a ballerina to create the role of Princess Aurora. Virigina Zucchi was no longer performing at the Imperial Theatres and the task for Petipa and Vsevolozhsky was to find a ballerina who could compete the “Divine Virginia”. Luckily, they found that very artist in another Italian – the young Carlotta Brianza, who was born in Milan in 1867 and trained at the La Scala School. Brianza had danced in Excelsior at the Livadia Gardens and went onto enjoy a successful tenure in Moscow, in which she had danced in the Moscow staging of Roxana, the Beauty of Montenegro. For her Moscow farewell benefit, she enjoyed a fine success as Marguerite in a revival of Jules Perrot’s Faust (renamed The Seven Deadly Sins by the Bolshoi Ballet Master). She arrived in Saint Petersburg a week after her final Moscow performance and was given a contract with the Imperial Theatre on the 27th February [O.S. 15th February] 1889 and made her Saint Petersburg début in The Haarlem Tulip where, as recorded by Sergey Khudekov, she created a furore with sweeping jetés en tournant and also the first Italian to incorporate elements of the Russian style. Brianza was cast as Aurora and would be one of the three Italian ballerinas to create the lead roles in all three of Tchaikovsky’s ballet as staged by Petipa and Lev Ivanov.

Tchaikovsky may have been consulted about the choice of Brianza and if he was, he seems to have approved of her. He certainly had an interest in the casting and even made a casting suggestion to Petipa when, during a rehearsal, he suggested Maria Anderson, who he had seen in the role of Cupid in The Vestal, to create the role of the White Cat. Cast as Prince Désiré was Pavel Gerdt, who was 45 years old at the time and Varvara Nikitina was cast in the secondary ballerina role of Princess Florine. Enrico Cecchetti created two roles – Carabosse and the Bluebird, which, unusual for a man at the time, gave him the opportunity to showcase his talents as a mime artist and a classical dancer. For the role of Carabosse, he created a long passage in the Prologue of codified mime as the Wicked Fairy curses the baby Princess.

The Vision Pas d'action (1890)
The Vision Pas d’action (1890)

Although the Prima Ballerina role is Princess Aurora, the most interesting role created for The Sleeping Beauty is arguably the role of the Lilac Fairy, which was originated by Marie Petipa and is her most famous role. The role itself is quite culturally significant and seems to further add to Vsevolozhsky’s Franco-Russo bridge that the ballet provided. For example, her name comes from an old Russian belief that says the lilac flower is a symbol of wisdom, which is why she is known as the Fairy of Wisdom, why she is associated with the lilac flower and why in the second act, she appears dressed as Athena the Greek Goddess of Wisdom. However, Marie is said to have limited what her father could do with the role since she was more of a character dancer than a classical dancer. The variation for her that is notated in the Sergeyev Collection is devoid of virtuoso technique. There have also been misconceptions regarding how the role of the Lilac Fairy was created for Marie. In the west, the only photograph of her in the role that was available was one in which she is costumed for the second act and is wearing heeled shoes rather than pointe shoes. This misled many into thinking that the role of the Lilac Fairy was originally a purely mimed role, but it was both a dance and mimed role. There is even an infamous myth from the Soviet Union that says Marie did not dance in the Grand Pas de six of the Prologue. However, there is no evidence proving that she did not dance, but rather evidence proving that she did dance (the photo of the Prologue shown below clearly shows that she is wearing a tutu and 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 each act), she wore three costumes.

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 and was an enormous success, one of Petipa’s biggest and Tchaikovsky’s most successful ballet. Some of the numbers were especially well-received, for example, the Act 1 Garland Waltz was a huge success on its own, so much so that Petipa was called out to take a bow after its performance.  The Dance of Puss-in-Boots and the White Cat was also very well-received and was encored. 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. Tsar Alexander III saw the ballet for the first time at the general rehearsal before the première and summoned Tchaikovsky to the Imperial box. Much to Tchaikovsky’s disappointment, however, the Tsar simply remarked that the new ballet was “very nice”. 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 ballet was staged in Moscow by Alexander Gorsky on the 29th January [O.S. 17th January] 1899. For his stagings, Gorsky worked with notation scores he had made of Petipa’s choreography, but the scores were stolen and have never been found.

The Sleeping Beauty was notated in the Stepanov notation method ca. 1903 and is part of the Sergeyev Collection.

Sofia Zasedateleva and Pyotr Konstantinov as Beauty and the Beast (1890)
Sofia Zasedateleva and Pyotr Konstantinov as Beauty and the Beast (1890)


The Sleeping Beauty in the 20th Century
After the 1917 Revolution, The Sleeping Beauty was the most frequently performed ballet in the former Imperial Mariinsky repertoire. Petipa’s production was performed for the final time by the former Imperial Ballet circa. 1918-19. 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. 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. Carlotta Brianza’s original 1890 variation for the second act was transferred to the beginning of the third act as a variation for the Lilac Fairy.


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 Stones 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 1944, Nikolai Sergeyev and Mona Inglesby staged the third act of The Sleeping Beauty for International Ballet, under the title Aurora’s Wedding. Three years later, they staged the full length ballet under the title The Sleeping Princess and for both productions, Sergeyev staged the choreography from his notation scores.

Alexei Bulgakov as the Ogre with Students of the Imperial Ballet School Mikhail Obukhov, Christian Kristerson, Ivan Aslin, Sergei Legat, Leonid Mikhailov, Vassily Stukolkin and Sergei Osipov as Hop 'o' My Thumb and his brothers (1890)
Alexei Bulgakov as the Ogre with Students of the Imperial Ballet School Mikhail Obukhov, Christian Kristerson, Ivan Aslin, Sergei Legat, Leonid Mikhailov, Vassily Stukolkin and Sergei Osipov as Hop ‘o’ My Thumb and his brothers (1890)

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, with Diana Vishneva as Princess Aurora, Andrian Fadeyev as Prince Désiré and Veronika Part as the Lilac Fairy, 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 eventually 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, with Diana Vishneva as Princess Aurora, Marcello Gomes as Prince Désiré and Veronika Part as the Lilac Fairy, 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, with Svetlana Zahkarova as Princess Aurora, Jacopi Tossi as Prince Désiré, Nicoletta Manni as the Lilac Fairy and Mick Zeni as Carabosse.

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, with his famous performance of several flying beaten steps, which included the famous diagonal of brisés volés, presenting to the audience the perfect evocation of a fluttering, soaring bird.

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.

Although Pavel Gerdt was 45 years old and past his prime in 1890, he performed a short variation for the pas de deux, which was simple, but still won him applause, as his brief danced numbers usually did. When Nikolai Legat succeeded Gerdt in the role of the Prince in 1894, he rechoreographed the variation into a much more technically demanding variation that showcased the male virtuosity that had become popular at the time. 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.


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  • Garafola, Lynn (1989) Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. USA: 1998 ed. Da Capro Press, Inc.
  • Inglesby, Mona and Hunter, Kay (2008) Ballet in the Blitz: the History of a Ballet Company. Debenham, Suffolk, England, UK: Groundnut Publishing
  • 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
  • Meisner, Nadine (2019) Marius Petipa, The Emperor’s Ballet Master. New York City, US: Oxford University Press
  • 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

Photos and images: © Dansmuseet, Stockholm © Большой театр России © Victoria and Albert Museum, London © Государственный академический Мариинский театр © CNCS/Pascal François © Bibliothèque nationale de France © Musée l’Opéra © Colette Masson/Roger-Viollet © АРБ имени А. Я. Вагановой © Михаил Логвинов © Михайловский театр, фотограф Стас Левшин. Партнёры проекта: СПбГБУК «Санкт-Петербургская государственная Театральная библиотека». ФГБОУВО «Академия русского балета имени А. Я. Вагановой» СПбГБУК «Михайловский театр». Михаил Логвинов, фотограф. Martine Kahane.