The familiar story of The Sleeping Beauty
has medieval roots but was popularized in 1697 with the publication of Charles Perrault
’s La Belle au bois dormant
, one in a collection of fairy tales with simple, often moralistic plots. The Sleeping Beauty
tells of a young princess cursed to sleep for 100 years until her true love awakens her with a kiss. Beyond this, the action is mainly symbolic, with characters representing values and ideas in a world divided into good and evil.
Rudolf Nureyev’s magnificent staging of The Sleeping Beauty for The National Ballet of Canada is based on the 1890 original by Marius Petipa and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and it makes the most of Perrault’s tale, using it as the basis for some of classical ballet’s most beautiful and demanding choreography. The Prologue especially delights in its symbolism, with a host of fairies arriving to bestow gifts of character on the baby Aurora, whose name heralds a new dawn for the kingdom she will one day represent.
Tchaikovsky’s score identifies the fairies according to their gifts, though these vary slightly across productions today. In Nureyev’s version, the fairies represent inner strengths that will benefit Aurora not only in her role as future monarch but also as a member of a civilized society. In this, the ballet ascribes value to Aurora’s person, not her appearance, giving the concept of “beauty” a welcome and modern inflection.
Each fairy performs a variation expressive of her gift. The first, known originally as Candide, offers purity in an elegant dance favouring long, clean lines.
The second variation is performed by two dancers in Nureyev’s staging, which is somewhat unusual but corresponds with the two names in the score: Coulante and Fleur de Farine. Together, they offer the gift of vitality in a whirling variation full of vigour and life.
Third is the Breadcrumb fairy, or Miettes qui tombent, named for the Russian tradition of leaving breadcrumbs in a baby’s cradle to ensure a good and prosperous life. Her gift is generosity and her variation includes a gentle scattering motion of the hands and hops on pointe.
The fourth fairy is the Songbird, Canari qui chante, whose gift is eloquence. She dances with light, bright footwork and flutters her hands to her mouth to suggest singing or the playing of an instrument.
The fifth fairy, Violente, gives energy. She is known informally as the “finger fairy” because she dances with pointed index fingers as though she were conducting electricity.
Next is the Principal Fairy, who offers the gift of wisdom in a grand variation that is thoughtful and restrained.
Aurora’s christening celebrations are interrupted by one fairy the royal court forgot to invite, Carabosse, who retaliates with a curse that would have Aurora prick her finger and die.
But Carabosse is foiled by Aurora’s final and most powerful protector, the Lilac Fairy, who subdues the curse with the promise that Aurora will not die but only sleep. When Aurora finally awakens, she does so with an inner beauty that eclipses the evil that has threatened her kingdom, leaving Carabosse withered and grey.