Program Notes

By Natalie Rouland, TWB Scholar-in-Residence

The crown jewel of the classical ballet repertoire, The Sleeping Beauty premiered in St. Petersburg on January 15, 1890. The story of a kingdom placed under a century-long spell mirrored an empire in crisis, and the culminating celebration of a royal wedding emphasized the importance of succession for the Romanov dynasty. The ballet’s setting extended from the French Renaissance of Henri IV to the grand siècle of Louis XIV and glorified the absolute rule of a European past that Russia sought to emulate even as it anticipated its eventual demise. 

The Sleeping Beauty represented the first collaboration of the French ballet master Marius Petipa and Pyotr Tchaikovsky, the Russian-born composer of Ukrainian and French heritage. Ivan Vsevolozhsky, the Francophile Director of the Imperial Theatres, adapted the libretto from Charles Perrault’s 1697 tale La belle au bois dormant and modeled the costumes after the court of Louis XIV at Versailles. This homage to France was particularly timely, as Tsar Alexander III maneuvered to establish the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1891 in part to replenish Russian coffers depleted by decades of unsuccessful military campaigns. 

The resulting paean of French imperial splendor astounded St. Petersburg society with its dazzling divertissements, symphonic score, and extravagant décors. The impact of the ballet was profound and divisive: some critics declaimed it as the end of ballet, while others lauded it as ballet’s future. A vocal cabal of critics targeted the fairytale libretto, populated with fairies and storybook characters, as entertainment fit for children. This orientation proved prescient, however, as the next collaboration between Tchaikovsky, Petipa, and Lev Ivanov produced The Nutcracker, the 1892 ballet that generated an entirely new audience and remains a holiday tradition to this day.  

Tchaikovsky’s music similarly unsettled the conservative clique of balletomanes accustomed to the more dansant scores of Cesare Pugni and Ludwig Minkus that dominated the stages in the second half of the nineteenth century. One such critic noted that the “insufficiently distinct” rhythm undermined the dancing of the original Aurora, the Italian prima ballerina Carlotta Brianza. Yet the multifaceted score of Tchaikovsky positioned ballet in the “higher” genres of opera and symphony and proved that the art was worthy of “serious” music. This trend gained momentum during the pioneering seasons of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in early-twentieth-century Paris and culminated in George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky’s neoclassical gems that defined mid-twentieth-century American ballet. 

In addition to Tchaikovsky’s demanding score, Petipa’s rigorous choreography challenged reigning conceptions of ballet d’action, in which dance served to advance the plot. The virtuoso variations of the fairies, the kaleidoscopic patterns of the Garland Dance, the technical tour de force of the Rose Adagio, the masterpiece-miniatures of Aurora’s wedding, and the glorious grand pas de deux of Princess Aurora and Prince Désiré all attest to the beauty of ballet independent of narrative. These exquisite choreographic jewels constitute Petipa’s crowning achievement and have been polished to perfection in The Washington Ballet’s reawakening of the iconic ballet. 

Julie Kent and Victor Barbee’s fairytale ballet The Sleeping Beauty premiered at the Kennedy Center on February 27, 2019. Heralded as “triumphant” by The Washington Post, The Washington Ballet’s sold-out production sparkled with bespoke choreography, resplendent artistry, sumptuous sets and costumes, and the stirring score of Tchaikovsky under the baton of Maestro Charles Barker. Drawing on the incomparable experience and expertise of Miss Kent and Mr. Barbee as well as the Stepanov choreographic notation preserved in the Harvard Theatre Collection, this exquisitely-envisioned ballet brings a nineteenth-century classic back to life for the twenty-first century. As delicate and precious as a Fabergé egg, The Sleeping Beauty remains a lovingly-wrought heirloom to inspire artists and audiences for generations to come. 

  • Julie Kent and Victor Barbee’s The Sleeping Beauty debuted at the Kennedy Center on February 27, 2019 and showcased choreography custom-made for The Washington Ballet. The canonic ballet by Marius Petipa premiered on January 15, 1890 in St. Petersburg and was the favorite ballet of its composer, Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Ivan Vsevolozhsky designed the original décors in the style of Louis XIV. The Washington Ballet’s production features scenery and costumes courtesy of Ballet West. The children’s costumes were designed and created by Judith Hansen. 
  • The symphonic score by Tchaikovsky set the standard for ballet music and constituted the composer’s first collaboration with Petipa, who would create The Nutcracker in 1892 and Swan Lake in 1895. In the third act Apotheosis of The Sleeping Beauty, Tchaikovsky borrowed the regal chords from the popular French march Vive Henri IV, in honor of the Bourbon king who was assassinated in 1610. This musical connection was particularly evocative for the Russian audience of 1890, still reeling from the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. Both the reigning Tsar Alexander III and the Tsarevich Nicholas attended the premiere of The Sleeping Beauty. Tsar Nicholas II was later executed along with his wife and five children in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. In 2000, the last Romanov ruler and his family were canonized by the synod of the Russian Orthodox Church. 
  • In the Prologue, look out for the show-stealing scene of the Fairy Carabosse. Accompanied by an entourage of mischievous minions, the venomous fairy disrupts the solemnity of Princess Aurora’s christening and transfixes the court and the audience with her unruly antics. Originated by the venerable Enrico Ceccheti and traditionally performed by a male dancer, the role of Carabosse requires the dramatic flair to convey the central pantomime sequence of the ballet: Princess Aurora will grow up to be beautiful and elegant, but she will also grow up to prick her finger on a spindle and die. Only the Lilac Fairy possesses the benevolent power to deflect the vengeful fury of Carabosse and restore order, a century later, to the kingdom. 

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By Natalie Rouland, TWB Scholar-in-Residence


The Sleeping Beauty  tells the tale of the beautiful Princess Aurora, the long-awaited child of King Florestan and his Queen. At her christening, the Fairies of Fervor, Charity, Felicity, and Valor present the baby Aurora with gifts and blessings. The most powerful fairy of all, the Lilac Fairy promises to love and watch over the young Princess over the course of her life. Enraged at not receiving an invitation from the royal family, the wicked Fairy Carabosse takes revenge on the kingdom by invoking a curse: on her sixteenth birthday, Princess Aurora will prick her finger on a spindle and die. The benevolent Lilac Fairy proclaims that Aurora will prick her finger, but she will not die. Instead, Aurora will fall into a deep sleep until a handsome Prince comes to awaken her with a kiss. 

Act One 

Guided and safeguarded by the gifts of the Fairies, the Princess matures into a radiant young woman. The King and Queen host a grand celebration on the occasion of her sixteenth birthday. The villagers waltz joyously with flower garlands as they await her arrival. After Aurora’s jubilant entrance, the King tells her that she has grown into a beautiful young woman and must choose a husband from the Princes of Spain, Portugal, Florence, and Venice. Aurora, her suitors, and her friends dance with increasing excitement until Carabosse appears in disguise and presents the Princess with a gift: a bewitched spindle on which she pricks her finger and collapses. The Lilac Fairy arrives and reassures the King and Queen that their beloved daughter has not died but is merely in a deep sleep. The Fairy then instructs the Princes to carry Aurora to her chamber, where she positions her pages to protect the Princess until the curse is broken. The Lilac Fairy then casts her own spell over the entire kingdom, which descends into a peaceful slumber alongside the Princess. 

Act Two 

One hundred years pass before Prince Désiré enters in a hunting party. While his companions entertain themselves with games and revelry, the Prince seems despondent. The Countess queries whether he is sad, to which Désiré replies that he is not sad and leads the Countess and guests in an elegant minuet. Yet the Prince remains detached as the party executes a spirited mazurka. When his companions depart in pursuit of wild deer, the Prince seeks solace in the woods. The Lilac Fairy appears and asks why the Prince is sad. When the Prince responds that he is sad because he loves no one, the Lilac Fairy presents a vision of the beautiful Princess surrounded by myriad nymphs. Impassioned by the image of the Sleeping Princess whom he declares that he loves and wants to marry, Prince Désiré embarks on a journey to find and awaken her. With the help of the Lilac Fairy, the Prince overcomes Carabosse and her minions, makes his way to the beautiful Princess, awakens her with a kiss, and breaks the spell over the sleeping kingdom.  

Act Three 

 At the royal court, wedding celebrations commence with a regal polonaise featuring special guests including the Silver and Diamond Fairies, their Gold Cavaliers, the White Cat and Puss-in-Boots, Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, and Princess Florine and the Bluebird. Princess Aurora and Prince Désiré confirm their desire to marry with a grand pas de deux, and the kingdom dances together in an exultant mazurka. The King blesses the marriage of Princess Aurora and Prince Désiré, as the Lilac Fairy presides over the lasting happiness of all.

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