Dance: Why beauty is a beast

It's hard to stage, it eats budgets and its lead role is the toughest challenge that any ballerina could face. So how is it, asks Jenny Gilbert, that we are being given three productions of Sleeping Beauty at once? And why do dancers adore it so much?
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Ask anyone at random to name the greatest classical ballet and they will probably say Swan Lake. Ask a dancer and it's Sleeping Beauty without hesitation. Sleeping Beauty holds a special place in the roster of old ballets as the only one in which the 19th-century ballet's greatest composer, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and its greatest choreographer, Marius Petipa, collaborated on equal terms. Up to that point, choreographers had dished out formulaic instructions to a jobbing tunesmith ("120 bars of waltz and three minutes of march, please") resulting in scores of patchy quality. But for Sleeping Beauty a composer was hired who not only had the symphonic skills to invest ballet music with real colour and depth, but also had the clout to stand up for his art, writing whole tracts of music without waiting for instructions, and flouting many of those he was given. The result - fortuitously, because mature geniuses thrown together won't always come up smiling - was sensational dance, sublime music, and a unity of expression unique in classical dance.

Mounting this 1890 ballet demands big forces, lavish design and special effects (not the least of them a magic boat that travels and a forest that grows), and it's become something of a North Face challenge for today's ballet companies. But, like climbers drawn to a summit, they can't leave it alone. In just the first six months of this year three new Beauties will have graced British stages. English National Ballet has toured a redesign of Kenneth MacMillan's version. Next month, Norwegian National Ballet brings a top-to-toe new production to the Wales Millennium Centre. And, this month, the Royal Ballet fêtes its 75th birthday with an extravagant recreation of a staging from 1946. It will be the company's third stab at finding a Beauty that works in the space of a decade.

So what's the attraction of this budget- gobbling giant? For the Royal Ballet there's an element of ownership at stake - even though the story is French and the choreography and music are Russian. "The company has never been without a Sleeping Beauty," says Christopher Newton, who, alongside Monica Mason, is now responsible for the painstaking reconstruction of a two-and-a-half hour show he first saw in 1948 when he was 11. "Ninette de Valois knew she needed to get that ballet into the rep as quickly as possible when she set up the Vic-Wells Ballet in the 1930s. It's just such brilliant training for an entire company from top to bottom, and not just because it's got more solo roles than any other ballet of the period, but because the choreography is of such quality that it teaches classical style as it goes."

Although the audience probably isn't aware of it, Newton points out, the choreography is composed entirely of classroom steps, the steps ballet dancers have been striving to perfect since they were children. It's not that it's got more steps or different steps than, say, Swan Lake, but they're more brilliantly exposed, without the distraction of melodrama. "Sleeping Beauty is a dance about dancing, if you like, and when a company performs it regularly the dancers are kept on optimum technical form."

But how did a young Irishwoman, setting up a national ballet company from scratch, find out what the steps were in the first place? Pure luck, determined networking and the Russian Revolution played a part. In the early 1900s the man in charge of recording ballets at St Petersburg's Maryinsky Theatre was one Nicholas Sergeyev. By the time of the October Revolution in 1917 he had notated some two dozen ballets using a rudimentary system unique to the Russians, and, fearful that the Bolsheviks would destroy such a palpable symbol of privileged pleasure, he smuggled the scores out to the West in his luggage. De Valois was a canny operator, and made the acquaintance of the Russian émigré. With him personally on hand to decipher his cryptic notes, de Valois and her dancers were able to learn exactly what the movements should be, direct from the source. This goes some way to explaining why today's Royal Ballet believes its Sleeping Beauty more authentic than the Russians'. Their choreography has certainly digressed over time, with steps being added and modified as they were handed down from memory.

But why revive a production from 1946 that barely anyone remembers? The simple answer is that the company has never done a Beauty to match it. What's more, that just-postwar production, staged by de Valois and designed by the artist Oliver Messel, came at a crucial point in both the company and the nation's history. In 1946, the restoration of Covent Garden was an extraordinary gesture for a bombed and almost bankrupt nation. Re-opening with a ballet about life reclaimed after a long sleep was equally inspired. Yet from another point of view it was completely crazy. Sleeping Beauty, of all ballets, demands a lavish hand. And here, time was short and materials scarce. Coupons had to be found for fabrics, gloves and boots. The Queen's train was fashioned from somebody's velvet curtains. The new-look, old-look version will change remarkably little. Designer Peter Farmer (this is his 10th Sleeping Beauty) has merely "aided and abetted and polished. We're hoping - no, we know," he says, "we're going to make it look how it looks in people's memories."

Norwegian Ballet had no such precedent to live up to, and the opportunity to design a lavish new Beauty was too tempting to resist, given its plans to move into a spectacular new opera house on Oslo's waterfront in 2008. "I'm not saying how much we've spent on this production," says company ballet master Janek Schergen. "Just let's say it's going to have to last us for the next 20 years at least."

Yet even a Swede who did his dance training in America could not escape the influence of the Royal Ballet's 1948 Beauty. As a student dancer in New York he found himself roped in as an extra during the Royal Ballet's tour of the States in the mid-Sixties. The experience, he says, of watching Fonteyn and Nureyev, and Sibley and Dowell night after night for six weeks "did something to my head, it got me hooked on Sleeping Beauty for life". He has since mounted the ballet with seven different companies around the world, each time expanding on what he believed to be the best aspects of the last, but sticking to the choreography he learnt with the Royal Ballet. In terms of design, though, he's struck out into new territory.

Where most productions are set in the 17th and 18th centuries - to match Perrault's re-telling of the fairytale - Schergen has adopted a wider time span, with a fashion- historical twist. He urged his designer, the American Sandra Woodall, to look at children's book illustrators from the early 1900s - Kay Nielsen, Arthur Rackham and particularly Edmund Dulac. "Book illustration was an art form in itself at that time. What I wanted was the sense of looking at the characters in the ballet as characters in a picture book. We decided to make the Prologue medieval - because 100 years just isn't enough to register a major change in fashions when the characters wake after their sleep - but it's 'medieval' seen through the lens of a 1910 picture book."

The Edwardian slant also inspired his treatment of Carabosse, the wicked fairy who plants the curse. In many productions - including the Royal's - she is played as a hag, often by a man. Schergen decided she should be "the most beautiful fairy, not old or ugly, just forgotten and furious. And who were the glamorous outsiders of the early 20th- century imagination? Why, gypsies, of course, hired to turn up at society parties to read fortunes and give everyone a scare. So when we found a fashion plate of a Bohemian-looking woman walking a panther on a leash, I thought, yes, that's it! There's our Carabosse."

With 243 costumes, including 60 tutus, each of which takes 40 hours to make even before starting on the decoration, the Norwegian Beauty has taken a full 12 months to pull together. It has also involved a global trawl for fabrics that, if the company were to offset its carbon emissions by planting trees, would create a thorny forest of its own. Silks have come from China via San Francisco. Appliquéd embroidery was commissioned from India. The designer and her team printed their own medieval patterns on to silk, and made their own velvet devoré (using chemicals that eat into the fabric). But as Woodall says, "There's something about clothes that have been made with joy. We had fun for a whole year and it shows."

Ultimately, though, the main focus of any Sleeping Beauty will be the ballerina, a role that is, without question, the toughest a classical dancer will meet. "When I think of that ballet," says Antoinette Sibley, who danced Aurora for the Royal throughout the Seventies, "I think of Margot Fonteyn, She did it with such consummate ease, and it's so hard." Christopher Newton, who partnered Fonteyn as one of Aurora's four suitors, agrees that she set an extraordinary precedent. Her "Rose Adage", the big ballerina solo danced almost entirely on pointe, includes strings of fiendish balances, which "had everyone on the edge of their seat", he remembers. "Margot's balances weren't just balances, they were joyous things."

Marianela Nunez, at 23, is one of five Royal ballerinas due to take on the challenge over the next few weeks. "As soon as I hear the music for the "Garland Waltz" start up, my stomach starts to churn," she says. "Once that's off, you're on, thrown straight into the most terrifying series of technical feats you've ever known. You feel like a diamond displayed in one of those motorised displays in a window. Every detail of your technique is exposed. And when you let go of the first suitor's hand to strike that first unsupported balance, it's like, aaaargh, anything could happen, no matter how hard you've rehearsed it. The last time I did the "Rose Adage", my mum watched up close from the wings. With her hands over her eyes. She told me later she couldn't bear to watch that piece so close again."

The Royal Ballet's 'Sleeping Beauty' opens at the Royal Opera House, WC2 (020 7304 4000) on 15 May. It will be relayed live around the country: see Norwegian Ballet's 'Sleeping Beauty' is at the Wales Millennium Centre (08700 40 2000), 21-25 June

Beauty secrets

On 17 January 1893, at the Imperial Theatre in St Petersburg, Mathilde Kschessinska became the first Russian ballerina to dance Aurora. She was conducting an illicit affair with the Tsar's son at the time.

It was the first ballet the impresario Serge Diaghilev ever saw. It was also the first one seen by a sickly eight-year-old called Anna Pavlova who decided, afterwards, that she wanted to become a dancer

The first staging in Britain was Diaghilev's at London's Alhambra Theatre in 1921. It was titled The Sleeping Princess to distinguish it from the pantomime running at the time

Rudolf Nureyev made his first appearance in it after defecting to the West, dancing the famously exhausting Bluebird pas de deux

When the Royal Opera House closed for refurbishment in 1997, the final item was the Lilac Fairy's "putting the court to sleep" solo, by Darcey Bussell. A poetic ending, with Bussell waving the old stage curtain away with her wand, was interrupted by an industrial protest from stage hands.