Dance: Let this Sleeping Beauty lie

The Kirov have restored their greatest ballet to its pristine condition. But to what effect?
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The Independent Culture
The world's greatest ballet had its premiere at the Maryinsky Theatre in St Petersburg on 16 January 1890. It was choreographed by Marius Petipa, the greatest choreographer of his time, composed by Tchaikovsky, the greatest composer of his time, and performed by the Maryinsky (Kirov) Ballet, possibly still the greatest company of its time. How did The Sleeping Beauty look when performed in 1890?

Nobody really knows, this being ephemeral, unfilmed ballet, dependent on fragile memories and prey to subsequent "improvements". Present productions consequently vary wildly. Does the Royal Ballet's version remain closer to the original. Or does the Kirov's? Or the Bolshoi's? On 30 April this year, on the same Maryinsky stage, the Kirov Ballet tried to answer that question by revealing the result of two years of dance excavation. It has now transported this revival to New York as part of its summer season at the Met, and hopes to bring it to the Royal Opera House next year.

Chief archaeologist is the Kirov ballet master Sergei Vikharev, whose principal tools were the 312 pages of a choreographic score, written in the Stepanov notation and now in the Harvard Theatre Collection. The Russians knew this manuscript existed, but had never looked. They knew that when the Maryinsky rehearsal director Nikolai Sergeyev left Russia in 1918, he took with him the notations for 24 ballets (including, tantalisingly, such lost classics as Petipa's The Pharaoh's Daughter and The Talisman). They also knew that in the West he used them to stage Diaghilev's Sleeping Beauty in 1921 and the Royal Ballet's versions of the classics Swan Lake, Coppelia and so on, which formed the core of that company's repertory.

Sergeyev mounted the Royal Ballet's Sleeping Beauty in 1939. The company's director at that time, Ninette de Valois, was already exercising an editing eye and since then many other revisions were made, with Ashton's only the first. But the Russians were no less active with their own scissors and hammers. In 1952, Konstantin Sergeyev (no relation) mounted a new production for the Kirov that excised the ballet's mime (considered old- fashioned by Soviet ballet) and made drastic alterations to the choreography. This, basically, has been the Kirov's production until now, and works well on its own terms.

For the reconstruction, Vikharev had to learn the notation system invented by Vladimir Stepanov in the 1890s with the Maryinsky's blessing. But how reliable is the Sleeping Beauty manuscript? It was clearly never more than an aide-memoire, and for the mime it reverts to written description. So, for further tools Vikharev consulted old teachers, read archives and looked at five different contemporary versions, deemed to retain a measure of authenticity. These included the Royal Ballet's, as well as the St Petersburg Maly Theatre's own attempt at reconstruction in 1995, and were useful in establishing what they agreed on. The outcome is a production which he reckons is close to how the ballet looked when Petipa died.

So how does it look? Extremely long: almost four hours at the Met, and that was without the famous Panorama scene, omitted because the Met lacked the machinery to operate the moving backdrops. And large, with over 500 costumes and a total of 205 dancers and musicians (under Gianandrea Noseda's baton). The Garland dance, for instance, has 48 adults and 24 children.

The big find is the Lilac Fairy's point-shoe variation in the Prologue, always hotly debated by ballet specialists. Modern Lilacs dance a variation by Fyodor Lopukhov, inserted because, it was claimed, the original Lilac (the choreographer's daughter Maria) didn't have one. "Everyone thought Maria didn't dance because photos show her wearing heels," says Tim Scholl, an American specialist who helped the Kirov. "But in fact she wore heels in the later acts only; she wore a different costume for the Prologue."

The Sergeyev manuscript contains two alternative point-shoe variations for the Lilac Fairy by Petipa, one with Maria's name inscribed on it. "So the Kirov chose that one, because it is interesting to find out what she did," continues Scholl. "And we see that she starts with three jetes and then goes into a long series of arabesques."

Aurora's Act 1 entry is a sudden, scurried arrival from a side door, contrary to the music's suspenseful build-up; while in the Act 3 pas de deux she loses her famous fish-dives (British productions) or swoons (Russian productions). The prince has so little to do that Igor Zelensky (partnering Svetlana Zakharova and Irma Nioradze over two nights) and Andrian Fadeyev (partnering Diana Vishneva) were given special dispensation to retain the prince's Act 3 variation by Konstantin Sergeyev. The mime has been replaced, but the pity is that Russians have now lost the art of performing it and the Lilac Fairy's gestures were so blandly phrased, they became a meaningless paddle of arms.

Certain sequences have been returned to their full length, such as when the king ponders whether to put to death a gaggle of law-breaking knitters, although all the static standing about makes you understand why it is usually cut. More successful is the restoration of the Tom Thumb and Cinderella divertissements, as well as the Fairies' symmetrical formations in the Prologue, where they once again appear with cavaliers. This brings the Prologue back in line with the Royal Ballet's, although our Sleeping Beauty is not always more authentic in other areas.

This revival's biggest handicap, to my mind, are the original designs. As the Maryinsky Theatre's then director, the francophile and playwright Ivan Vsevolozhsky co-wrote the libretto of The Sleeping Beauty with Petipa, and designed the costumes. It certainly made sense for him to choose a time-span from the 16th century to the 17th, so that the finale's painted apotheosis of clouds includes Apollo as a reminder of Louis XIV the Sun King, the creator of a new, civilised order through the arts and establishment of ballet. But what costumes, what fussiness, what a quantity of clashing colours and different shapes.

The garland dance with adults dressed in red and white and children in blue and white produces clear French-tricolour patterns, but elsewhere there is such confusion it is hard actually to see the dance.

This is particularly problematic in the Prologue, with its mass of characters, all with contrasting costumes, positioned within the ornately carved walls of a throne room. Designed by Genrickh Levot, the scenery is so decorated as to become oppressively leaden; but the decor improves with successive acts, and different designers - five in all, according to the custom of the time. "Designers specialised in certain settings," as Scholl explains. "One might do only palace interiors, and another parks."

Did this hectic aesthetic represent the taste of the time, or more Vsevolozhsky's personal taste? Either way, it makes you question the issue of theatrical reproduction. The Kirov exercise is historically interesting, entirely worthy and probably extremely costly, but it is a fossil exhibit, rather than an event coming to life. I'm not sure we would want to see Shakespeare staged and acted the way he was four hundred years ago either.

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