Tchaikovsky, The Sleeping Beauty (1890)
Based on: La Belle au bois dormant, a fairy tale by Charles Perrault
Notable Cultural Reference: Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Setting: Russia in the 17th and 18th centuries
Plot in 101 words or less: At Aurora’s christening the uninvited Fairy of Darkness brings the weirdest present ever and Glinda the Good (aka the Lilac Fairy) finds herself in damage control mode. Flash forward to Aurora’s sweet sixteen and four rose-bearing suitors. In a surprising twist, the most dangerous prick turns out to be from a spindle—not thorns—and everybody settles down for a long winter’s nap. Flash forward again 100 years to Prince Desiré’s forest hunting expedition where Glinda, who I guess has just been chillin’ all this time, leads him to the sleeping Aurora. Every kiss begins with ‘kay. Wedding bells.
Memorable Choreography: Grand pas d’action: Grand adage à la rose, aka the Rose Adagio
Last weekend, I went with La Chinoise to the first program of the San Francisco Ballet’s 2018 season. It seems like I have been waiting forever for them to do Sleeping Beauty—and I basically have, since they have not produced this Tchaikovsky classic since 2007, just before I moved here. I know I have ranted about this before, but I will never understand why this company performs such a limited number of full-length story ballets: Not only do they generally max out at three per season, but they seem to only program new ballets I have little interest in or endless repetitions of Swan Lake, Giselle, and Romeo & Juliet.
Actually, there is no “seems” about it. As far as I can tell, of the twenty-eight times they have programmed full-length classics* in the last fourteen seasons (2005–2018), half have been one of these three staples. After these three, Cinderella, Don Quixote, and Onegin have each been programmed three times (which, okay, I don’t love the choreography of either of the first two, but they are beautiful-looking productions at least—and I really love Onegin). Shocked that I haven’t mentioned Coppélia yet? Me too, but that ballet, like Sleeping Beauty, has only been programmed twice in all that time. What is even more surprising, given the above, they have actually programmed Sylvia once, way back in 2006. Wish I had been here for that one. [Side note: I almost missed getting tickets for Sleeping Beauty because I had essentially given up on following the San Francisco Ballet’s programming; however, while in New England over the holidays I attended Boston Ballet’s The Nutcracker for a change and that made me check the schedule. A Christmas miracle!]
Sorry, I just had to get that out there. I mean who wouldn’t want to see San Francisco Ballet take on stories like La Bayadère (Indian dancers!), Le Corsaire (pirates!), or La Dame aux Camélias (Manon and La traviata in one!)?
After all, if the glorious Sleeping Beauty is any indication, they would be fabulous. Because, folks, this production was beautiful.
Of course, the story of Sleeping Beauty lends itself to high production values, but another key feature of the ballet is that it provides for numerous smaller solos so that, if a company has any depth, it can really shine. And shine San Francisco Ballet did. I didn’t even see any of my favorite principals and I still loved it. God I hope they bring this back next year.
One reason I love Sleeping Beauty so much and have been anticipating it for so long is the music (and here I’d like to give a shoutout to Natalie Parker on clarinet). While not as showy as Swan Lake, it is more consistent, and lends itself to dancing with the simple, clean lines of classical technique. Plus, the tone painting in this work is extraordinary, especially in the fairy-tale dances at the wedding—the Pas de caractère for Puss in Boots and the White Cat as well as the Bluebird Pas de deux. In fact, I think the only thing I fault this production for is not including the Pas de caractère with Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf. I feel like there should have been at least one more set of fairy-tale characters rather than more variations with the same two.
Speaking of Act III, La Chinoise and I were slightly baffled by the set design and how we seemed to move from a Russian palace to the court of Versailles. Had we read the program notes beforehand, we might have been less confused since they explain that the change reflects the hundred-year shift and the fact that in that time the Imperial court moved “from Byzantine manners and fashion… to the influence of European styles and cultures.” Makes sense to me, especially given the nod to Charles Perrault’s other fairy tales in this final act.
Sleeping Beauty has ended its run at the War Memorial Opera House; however, I’m sincerely hoping they will repeat this beautiful production next season.
*The primary full-length story ballets that use classical music are as follows: La Bayadère, Cinderella, Coppélia, Le Corsaire, La Dame aux Camélias, Don Quixote, La Fille mal gardée, Giselle, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Nutcracker, Onegin, Raymonda, Romeo and Juliet, The Sleeping Beauty, La Source, Swan Lake, La Sylphide, and Sylvia. I did not include The Nutcracker in my counts since it is performed every December before the official start of the season.