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‘The Sleeping Beauty’: Royalist Ballet or Harmonious Ideal?

In time, the ballet’s musical-theater classicism and celebration of pure form became an ideal for modernism. After Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballets Russes, and Stravinsky, the composer from whom he commissioned successive premieres, had done so much to transform music and dance theater with the first vanguard of radical reform from 1910 to 1920, the marvels of Tchaikovsky’s music led them back to “The Sleeping Beauty.” Yet when Diaghilev put the ballet onstage (as “The Sleeping Princess,” 1921, in London), it was Petipa’s choreography that Stravinsky found as the revelation. In his autobiography, he hailed its demonstration of classical ballet as “the triumph of studied conception over vagueness, of the rule over the arbitrary, of order over the haphazard,” and called it “the perfect expression of the Apollonian principle.”

Musical intellectuals long condescended to Tchaikovsky. Today we can love his symphonies, concertos and operas while still admiring “The Sleeping Beauty” as the greatest of all ballet scores, the most fragrantly detailed and powerfully planned. Though there’s more going on in its music than in its choreography, Petipa’s stage action remains the ideal framework to help you feel what the music says. No wonder, the makers of the Ballets Russes revered “Beauty”! It had paved the way for them — and has never been surpassed.

For decades, Americans tended to allow “Beauty” to be the fief of visiting European ballet companies. (The Royal Ballet made its name in the United States with a vintage production in 1949 and kept returning with it as its most famous calling card.) Not so today.

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A Royal Ballet production of “The Sleeping Beauty” in 2014.

Credit
Tristram Kenton/Royal Opera House

Two American productions of this classic are surely now the world’s best, though unalike. Boston Ballet’s, first produced by Ninette de Valois for the Royal Ballet in 1977 with four dances by Frederick Ashton, represents a “Sleeping Beauty” tradition that evolved over many decades. (De Valois and Ashton saw the 1921 Diaghilev production, and were involved in British stagings from 1939 onward.) Ballet Theater’s, staged by Alexei Ratmansky in 2015, returns us fastidiously to a dance text and style taken from as early in the ballet’s history as can be reconstructed. Mr. Ratmansky’s production is a rare achievement, bringing a historic dance idiom to life. His steps draw us into the music’s web more closely than ever.

Still, I can see why some critics argue that the physicality here is actually more old-fashioned than the 1890 choreography — closer to August Bournonville’s mid-19th-century manner than Petipa’s. I can’t imagine anyone finding this production to be “the perfect expression of the Apollonian principle”: It’s vivid, but its kind of ballet delights without providing any classical revelation. We feel ballet’s bloom here, but not the transcendence of line and form.

Perhaps what’s needed, as with so much period-instrument Mozart, is more time to adjust. I’m curious to see where Mr. Ratmansky’s “Aurora”s Wedding” takes us this July. I’m happiest when “The Sleeping Beauty” remains a work in progress.

That’s how I remember the Boston Ballet staging when it was new in 1977. At every performance for over a year, de Valois (1898-2001), its director, kept making changes; “We must get it right,” she told colleagues. She and Ashton (1904-88), who had made supplementary dances for it and coached many of its roles for decades, aren’t with us today. Still, it’s remarkable how much of their wisdom remains alive here; and the designs by David Walker (1934-2008) remain exquisite in their spectrum of color and fine period sense.

Even Mr. Ratmansky pays homage twice to the ballet’s post-1890 history. For most casts — not all — he incorporates the famous fish dives in the wedding pas de deux; these were added in or just before 1921. And in Aurora’s celebrated Rose Adagio, in Act I, he adds the heroic balances on one point that Margot Fonteyn from 1939 onward made into part of the role’s legend. His new “Aurora’s Wedding” contains two dances added (to “Nutcracker” music) in 1921. When we see again his production of the complete ballet, will he have gone on rethinking his idea of the ballet and its tradition? I hope so: Reconstruction must be inseparable from re-evaluation.

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