The Sleeping Princess

Ballet in three acts and five scenes

  • Producer: Les Ballets Russes de Serge Diaghilev
  • First performed: by Marius Petipa as Sleeping beauty, 1890, Mariinsky Theatre,
    St Petersburg
  • Premiere: 2 November 1921, Alhambra Theatre, London
  • Costume design: Léon Bakst
  • Costumiers: Pierre Pitoeff, Lovat Fraser, Miss Norman, Maison Muelle Rossignol
  • Scenery design: Léon Bakst
  • Music: Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky, partly reorchestrated by Igor Stravinsky
  • Choreography: Marius Petipa (reproduced by Nicholas Sergeyev), Bronislava Nijinska (after Petipa)
  • Libretto: Marius Petipa and I Vsevolozhsky, after Charles Perreault
  • Main characters: Princess Aurora, Prince Florimund, the Lilac Fairy, the Enchanted Princess, Carabosse, the Wicked Fairy, King Florestan XXIV, Queen, Catalabutte, the Fairy of the Pine Woods, Sister Anne, the Cherry Blossom Fairy, Red Riding Hood, the Fairy of the Humming Birds, Pierrette, the Fairy of the Song Birds, the Carnation Fairy, Columbine, the Fairy of the Mountain Ash, Ariana, the Spanish Prince, Harlequin, the Indian Prince, the Italian Prince, the English Prince, Puss in Boots, Pierrot, the White Cat, the Bluebird, Shéhérazade, the Shah, the Shah’s Brother, the Porcelain Princesses, the Mandarin, Innocent Ivan and his brothers

This ballet is adapted from the classic fairytale Sleeping beauty. At the birth of his daughter, King Florestan XXIV and his queen invite all the fairies of the land to be godmothers to the baby Princess Aurora at her christening at the palace. All the fairies arrive and bestow a magic wish on the young princess. However, the ceremony is interrupted by the wicked fairy Carabosse who, angry that she has been left off the invitation list, curses Aurora, promising that one day she will prick her finger and die. Although she cannot break the curse, the Lilac Fairy frustrates Carabosse by exchanging Aurora’s imminent death with a long slumber, from which Aurora can only be woken by the kiss of a prince. Aurora’s awakening by Florimund a hundred years later is followed by their spectacular marriage.

This ballet had its genesis as Sleeping beauty, presented in 1890 by Marius Petipa for the Mariinsky Theatre and celebrated for its lavish production quality and for the commissioning of Tchaikovsky for its musical score. The young Bakst, Benois and Diaghilev saw this production, and were enthralled by its fusion of historical art, design and contemporary music. The ballet was given a number of times outside Russia, including a version for Anna Pavlova’s company in New York in 1916, with costume designs by Bakst. While the Ballets Russes had reached the end of the decade as the acknowledged leader in modern ballet, Diaghilev’s decision to stage this ballet in 1921 was driven by the company’s weak financial position and the hope that such a classic might secure for the Ballets Russes a long-running season in the conservative, but lucrative, London theatre world. He reconciled with Bakst, offering him the design work, secure in the knowledge of Bakst’s previous experience with this production and his sketches prepared for the earlier Pavlova commission. Diaghilev secured the backing of Sir Oswald Stoll, the director of the Alhambra Theatre, to fund the production, renamed in English The sleeping princess, but soon ran over budget. The costs of Bakst’s costumes for a huge cast spiralled due to their lavish use of expensive materials and couture-like construction and detailing, with the final detail of every costume personally overseen and approved by Diaghilev. The National Gallery’s costume for a lady-in-waiting is an indication of the extravagance, as a costume provided for a relatively minor character. Bakst’s six elaborate sets, inspired by the Baroque work of the seventeenth-century theatre designer Ferdinando Galli Bibiena (1656–1743) and the eighteenth-century work of Bérain and Boquet (for the later period of Aurora’s awakening), also drained the budget.

The demanding, lengthy performance of a single ballet did not appeal to audiences used to a more varied repertoire, and crucial audience numbers did not eventuate, forcing the production to close after 114 performances and leaving Diaghilev with crippling debt. As security, Stoll impounded the valuable costumes and properties at his Coliseum Theatre until Diaghilev was able to repay the debt, something he did not achieve until 1926. Having fled London before the production finished, without his properties and unable to return to Britain due to the risk of legal action and penalty, Diaghilev was again forced to change direction and focus. An unplanned future benefit of this episode was that the sturdily crafted costumes remained in relatively good condition, having been worn lightly and stored for a long period. By the time they were released, Diaghilev had moved on from such historical spectacles and the costumes, like Aurora, entered another long period of slumber and obscurity.

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