“What is Sleeping Beauty?” Alexei Ratmansky researched


Alexei Ratmansky is one of the most reknowned choregraphers today. He reconstructs and revives old ballets by spending months to study the movement score, step by step. So Sleeping Beauty came out with more subtlety, with more gradation and more in-between things. These are small differences but in the end it makes a changed ballet.

At this moment Ratmansky is rehearsing the “real authentic Swan lake” with the Zürich Ballet. Based on the choreography of Marius Petipa und Lew Iwanow in 1895 he revived the original version. It will premier on 6 February 2016.

Ratmansky’s Beauty Wakes Up BY JOAN ACOCELLA, JUNE 8, 2015

Alexei Ratmansky, shown in rehearsal with the
A.B.T. principal dancer Isabella Boylston, has
heightened the drama of Tchaikovsky’s “The Sleeping

When Alexei Ratmansky signed on as artist-in-residence at American Ballet
Theatre, in 2009, part of the deal was that he would make for the troupe a
new production of “The Sleeping Beauty,” the celebrated ballet that Marius Petipa,
chief choreographer of the Russian Imperial Theatres in the late nineteenth century,
created for the St. Petersburg company, the Maryinsky, in 1890, to a commissioned
score by Tchaikovsky. Ratmansky longed for this assignment. It may seem odd that a
modern-minded young choreographer (he’s forty-six) should also be a specialist in
reviving old ballets, but that is the case with Ratmansky. He likes to make dancers
tear across stages in red leotards to Shostakovich, and he also likes sniffing around in
archives and reading old dance manuals.
In the case of “The Sleeping Beauty,” there was plenty of archival material for him
to stick his nose into, above all, two hundred and thirty pages of notation of the
choreography, housed in the Harvard Theatre Collection. Executed in St. Petersburg
and dated 1903 to 1905—that is, thirteen to fifteen years after the ballet’s première
—the notations could be counted on to be fairly faithful to Petipa’s original
choreography. There were also drawings and photographs of the show as it looked in
its early seasons. None of this was exactly buried treasure—those notations had been
used to mount Western productions of “Beauty” since 1921—but Ratmansky
suspected that they contained a lot more information than was being used in
modern stagings.
As he told me, however, accuracy was not his primary concern. What he wanted
above all was just to look this famous old ballet in the face, insofar as he could. “I
was interested to find out: What is Petipa? What is ‘Sleeping Beauty’?” So he and
his wife, Tatiana Ratmansky—she is a former ballet dancer, trained in Kiev, and
assists Ratmansky—taught themselves the notation system in question (Stepanov
notation, a nineteenth-century form, now obsolete), and then spent a month
studying the movement score, step by step.
The main thing that they found there, Ratmansky says, was much more complication
than we see in modern productions of “Beauty”—more subtlety, more gradation,
more in-between things, more of what visual-arts people call modelling. “Today,”
Ratmansky says, “we stretch the knee so hard, it stiffens the spine.” The “Beauty”
notation rarely shows a fully stretched knee. Likewise, on today’s ballet stages, the
foot is forcefully pointed most of the time, whereas Petipa varied the tension: halfpoint,
quarter-point. “The technique of turns is also different. Petipa’s turns are
faster, and with more degrees of bending of the knee.” Sometimes the “working leg”
(the leg that’s in the air) might point its toes directly at the knee of the “supporting
leg,” as is the rule today. But at other times the situation might be looser, with the
toes aimed at the supporting leg’s mid-calf or ankle.
Such discoveries led directly into the new production, which had its world première
in Costa Mesa, California, in March, and then opened in New York, at the Met, last
Friday. Unsurprisingly, the most striking thing about it is the thing Ratmansky
found most striking in the archival materials: complexity, subtlety. In part, what this
means is that extremes have been tempered. The so-called “finger variation,” which
the fairy Violente performs at Princess Aurora’s christening, in order to bestow
“temperament” (high spirits) on her, involves a lot of pointing and is usually done
very vigorously, as if that fairy were about to poke somebody’s eyes out. Ratmansky’s
Violente keeps her arms closer to her chest, and deploys them more softly, so that
the pointing becomes a sort of jeu d’esprit.
A similar magic has been wrought with the divertissement for Puss-in-Boots and
the White Cat. In many versions of “Beauty” this number looks like a tired musichall
routine. But Ratmansky has made the trademark pas de chat (“cat steps”) faster,
more liquid. The dance now seems fresh, like a newly painted toy. In some passages
of the ballet, what he has done is just bring in the element of time. In the Vision
Scene, when the spectre-Aurora calls to the Prince to come and rescue her, she
doesn’t just stand in arabesque and beckon with her arm. She first stands in a low
arabesque and beckons; then she changes to a higher arabesque—she is stretching
toward him—and beckons again. This may seem a small difference—from “Come to
me” (in other productions) to “Come to me. Oh, please come to me” (in
Ratmansky’s)—but a lot of small differences like that, spread over three hours, make
for a changed ballet.
Ratmansky has not just thickened the texture. As the come-to-me’s demonstrate, he
has heightened the drama. In the twentieth century there was a strong anti-narrative
trend in some quarters of the ballet world: storytelling was seen as corny.
Consequently, a great deal of the mime, or hand-talk, in the nineteenth-century
ballets was dropped. According to Ratmansky, this was definitely the case with “The
Sleeping Beauty.” In the movement score he found much more mime than we see in
today’s productions, and he says he restored every scrap of it.
What a relief! When twentieth-century stagers dumped the mime, they didn’t
ordinarily eliminate the music to which it was set. So what we got, quite often, was
somebody sort of bumbling around, doing a bit of this and a bit of that, until the
music for the banished mime came to an end. Before last week, I don’t think I ever
saw a “Sleeping Beauty” in which I didn’t feel sorry for the evil fairy, Carabosse. In
the christening scene she would come on, in her rat-drawn carriage, and issue her
curse. (“Aurora will grow up to be a beautiful girl, but she will prick her finger with a
spindle and die.”) Then she would be left with bars and bars of music in which she
had nothing to do but storm around looking baleful, while we waited for something
new to happen. In Ratmansky’s version, she spends not a moment idle. She waves
her claws; she fingers her dirty hair; she beats the master of ceremonies with her
cane. She bends over like a fetus; she rises like a tsunami. Her loathsome pages,
delighted that the princess will die, fall on their backs, laughing hysterically, and
wave their feet in the air. The opening-night Carabosse, Craig Salstein, is a dancer
who sometimes overdoes things in character roles, but here the choreography rose to
the occasion of his exuberance, and he was splendid. When he drove offstage after
issuing the curse you felt as though you had seen a whole show already. You could
practically go home.
But every role in this production has acquired new force, new specificity. The
Bluebird and Princess Florine really seem to be in love, as they were in the French
fairy tale on which Petipa based this variation. Among the courtiers, Catalabutte, the
master of ceremonies, has a personality—officious, irascible—in every production
I’ve seen, but here his subordinate, a little herald in a three-cornered hat, has a
personality, too. He’s scared to upstage Catalabutte, but he’s proud of his job, so he
stamps his cane forcefully and acts important. Though mime, by definition, is
wordless, the wonderful second-night Lilac Fairy, Christine Shevchenko, practically
shouted her gestures. SCOOP! WAVE! POINT! BAM! POW!
The set and costumes, by Richard Hudson (who was also the designer for
Ratmansky’s 2010 “Nutcracker,” and for “The Lion King”), are another subject, a
large one. (See Marina Harss’s advance piece
(http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/31/arts/dance/the-sleeping-beauty-awakes-tovibrant-ballet-costumes.html?_r=0) in the Times.) All that has to be said here is that
they too shout and have a good time. They were inspired by Léon Bakst’s designs
for the “Beauty” that Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes mounted in London, in 1921—a
production so opulent that it nearly bankrupted the company. (Diaghilev, to escape
his creditors, borrowed three hundred pounds from one of his dancers’ mothers and
left town before the show closed.) Hudson’s design involves four hundred costumes,
with, it seems, every kind of embellishment the world could supply—lace, fringe,
tassels, rosettes, ruching, feathers, buttons, bows. Some of this, in my opinion, crosses
an invisible line. The fairies’ platinum-blonde wigs seem to me to whisper, “We
come from Fourteenth Street.” The Queen’s wedding-scene wig is nineteen inches
high; you’re afraid she’s going to fall over backward. But those are exceptions. Most
of the costumes are not so much bizarre as just fabulous, in what is at times a
Victorian sort of way—that is, busy, crowded, fanciful. (Bakst may have been
working in 1921, but he was remounting an 1890 production, which he knew down
to the last hair ribbon.) And why shouldn’t Aurora’s tutu have a bustle? The show
cost six million dollars, which A.B.T. is splitting with its co-producer, La Scala in
Despite this design, or perhaps with its connivance (as I said, it’s busy, it’s fun), the
most obvious effect of Ratmansky’s work is a humanizing of “The Sleeping Beauty.”
I have always found this ballet a little smug, even cold. When it begins, King
Florestan and his people have everything. Then a problem arises, then it’s solved,
and once again Florestan and his people have everything. I am not objecting to the
fact that kings live in castles, or that some stories end happily. But “The Sleeping
Beauty” beams a serenity that at times seems unrelenting. Many artists and
intellectuals of Russia’s Silver Age had a cult of the grand siècle, the world of Louis
XIV. That is where Act III of the original “Sleeping Beauty” was set. Florestan and
his court—and we, vicariously—wake up in that milieu of settled power and
confidence. The heroine’s name is Aurora, dawn—in other words, inevitability. The
sun will come up tomorrow, no matter what Carabosse says.
This is often counted as one of the ballet’s virtues: its centeredness, its grand view of
things. People who dislike Tchaikovsky often charge him with sentimentality, and
such people tend to single out “The Sleeping Beauty”—in contrast, for example, to
the symphonies—as a composition in which he laudably overcame that weakness.
The great English ballet conductor Constant Lambert, in a well-known essay from
1946, made this point. Comparing a melody in the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s
Fifth Symphony to the cello solo in the Vision scene of “Beauty” (that’s where
Aurora does her “Come to me”), he writes, “The purely physical similarity between
the two tunes is astonishing, but they inhabit entirely different psychological worlds.
In one [the symphony], Tchaikovsky is crying for the moon; in the other [“Beauty”],
he is content to gaze at its beauty.” I think Lambert is right, but, unlike him, I could
have used a little more crying for the moon.
This is where Ratmansky comes in. The man has a lot of different traits, but one
quality that marks a great deal of his work is sheer good-heartedness. I would even
call it sweetness. Once, in an interview, I remarked on how young he was (ten) when
he was separated from his parents in order to go to the Bolshoi Ballet School in
Moscow. And they lived far away, in Kiev. He went for months without seeing them.
What did the family do when they were finally reunited during the long vacations? I
asked. “We ate and hugged,” he said. I think of that sentence sometimes when I see
Ratmansky’s work. His ballets are certainly not without pain or strangeness, even
sarcasm, but, in the main, they love the world and its people. In the middle of the
grand pas de deux in Act III of the new “Beauty,” Aurora, facing the Prince, touches
her heart and then points to her ring finger. “I love you,” she is saying, “and I want to
marry you.” We don’t need to hear this; we already know it. (We are in the middle of
the wedding.) I just checked a few “Beauty” productions on YouTube, and that bit of
mime is not there. Do other versions use it? I don’t know. But how typical of
Ratmansky that we should find it in his version—that at this culmination of the
music and the story what he stresses is not triumph or closure, not dynastic security
or divine right, but just a girl’s happiness.
That personal note runs through the whole production. We see it in the modelling
that Ratmansky has reinserted into the choreography—the half-points, the halfbends,
the consistent refusal to go from zero to sixty in less than sixty seconds—and
we see it in the mime, the dramatic details. But I am certain that I detected it also in
the bearing of A.B.T.’s dancers. Everyone seems to have gained five pounds and
relaxed a little since I last saw them. They have eaten and hugged, as it were, and
have thereby rescued this ballet from its sometimes tedious grandeur.
The “Beauty” will have a run of eight performances at the Metropolitan Opera House
between June 8th and June 13th.

Joan Acocella has written for The New Yorker, reviewing dance and
books, since 1992, and became the magazine’s dance critic in

Author: ballettlovers

I danced ballet as child, albeit with little success. Despite this, my passion for ballet and dance has carried into adulthood. I still love to watch ballet performances and would love to share my passion with you.

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