Researching THE SLEEPING BEAUTY part 1

“From the Page to the Stage”

By Jessica Maria MacFarlane

When discussing The Sleeping Beauty Ben Stevenson once fondly remarked, “We all need a certain amount of beauty and love in our lives.” With such an opulent history in literature, music, film, opera, and ballet, this classic fairy tale continues to enchant audiences and stand the test of time. In part one of this special two-part blog post, we’ll take a deeper look into the ballet’s historic past and present as Houston Ballet begins its performances for Ben Stevenson’s cherished production of The Sleeping Beauty from February 25 to March 6.


“And there, on a bed the curtains of which were drawn wide, he beheld the loveliest vision he had ever seen”; Edmund Dulac, Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library, 1910.

The most familiar version of The Sleeping Beauty is the 1697 classic fairy-tale “La Belle au Bois Dormant” or “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood” by French author Charles Perrault. In Perrault’s original story the Princess doesn’t have a name; her daughter is named Dawn, which is often translated into Aurore or Aurora. There’s also the similar Brothers Grimm version, “Dornröschen” or “Little Briar Rose,” from 1812, which included 13 fairies and a nameless Prince. In fact, consistent character names for The Sleeping Beauty didn’t appear until early opera and ballet productions.

It’s also important to note that although this fairy tale is associated with the overall themes of love and “good versus evil,” its origins lie in Western fairy lore and their codes of conduct. Up until the mid-20th century fairy lore was more commonly known through such texts as Andrew Lang’s popular series of fairy books. In ballet versions the struggle between the Lilac Fairy’s triumphant compassion and Carabosse’s bitter revenge still holds true to traditional fairy lore.

Original cast members costumed for Act I. (center) Carlotta Brianza as Aurora; [Imperial Ballet] Mariinsky Theatre, The Sleeping Beauty, St. Petersburg, 1890.
While the happily-ever-after ending is included in both of these versions, the direct inspiration for The Sleeping Beauty is a story from 1634 by Giambattista Basile titled “Sun, Moon, and Talia.” It tells a more shocking and gruesome tale with a moral that reads, “Those whom fortune favors, Find good luck even in their sleep.”

The 1959 animated Disney version successfully acquire sections of Tchaikovsky’s score for its version of The Sleeping Beauty. But the Disney film differs from the original fairy tales the most by naming every single character, only adding three fairies as Aurora’s Godmothers, including the Prince in the Prologue, and creating a dragon which the evil fairy—now renamed Maleficent in the film—transforms into to fight the Prince. Despite its creative alterations, it’s still relevant today for young children, acting like a gateway for ballet productions.

(right) Marie Petipa as the Lilac Fairy & (left) Lyubov Vishnevskaya as an Attendant; [Imperial Baller] Mariinsky Theatre, The Sleeping Beauty, St. Petersburg, 1890.
In ballet history The Sleeping Beauty had been in existence before Marius Ivanovich Petipa and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 1890 production as loose variations with little popularity. The 1890 Imperial Ballet (later renamed Kirov Ballet, now Mariinsky Ballet) production heralded a magnificent era of classical ballet in Russia. It quickly became a symbol of refinement and elegance beyond the previous ethereal Romantic era of ballet. This 4-hour-long production was also crucial to ballet history because it brought together prominent French, Italian, and Russian figures in ballet.

It’s a delightful mixture of the Perrault and Grimm fairy tale with characters and scenarios recreated to fit the proscenium and the various renowned ballerinas of the time. The Lilac Fairy, for instance, was first created to showcase the poise of Petipa’s daughter, Marie Petipa. It also inspired the iconic ballerina Anna Pavlova, who saw this production as an 8-year-old girl in Russia and would later create her own brief version for her touring company in 1916.

Léon Bakst costume design for Princess Aurora, Act 1; Ballets Russes The Sleeping Beauty, London, 1921.

In 1921 the eccentric impresario of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev, premiered his own production of The Sleeping Princess with revised choreography by Bronislava Nijinska and original designs by Léon Bakst. This extremely lavish 1921 production sent the Ballets Russes into crippling debt. It also failed to include Petipa’s original choreography via Nicholas Sergeyev’s detailed notations of The Sleeping Beauty, which he took out of Russia following the Revolution of 1917.

Dame Margot Fonteyn as Aurora Act II. Vic-Wells Ballet The Sleeping Beauty, London, 1939.

The 1939 staging of The Sleeping Beauty at the Vic-Wells Ballet (later renamed Sadler’s Wells Ballet, now Royal Ballet), with Sergeyev’s coveted notations of The Sleeping Beauty, was Dame Margot Fonteyn’s first time dancing Aurora in Act I and II. Since 1936 she had been dancing an abridged variation of the fairy tale, but she was understandably nervous to perform such a historic role at only 19. Incidentally, her performances as Aurora are among the greatest moments in ballet history.

After World War II, The Sleeping Beauty gloriously helped resurrect the company in 1946. Shortly afterwards, the first full-length American performance in 1949 brought this British production to a new audience that quickly embraced it. After her first appearance as Aurora in America, Dame Margot nervously said, “I felt absolutely certain that I was not the kind of dancer New York was going to like. I was very frightened.”

Beryl Grey as the Lilac Fairy, Dame Margot Fonteyn as Aurora and Robert Helpmann as Prince Florimund in the Vision Scene., Act II. Photograph by Frank Sharman. Sadler’s Wells Ballet The Sleeping Beauty, London, 1946.

Since then, full-length versions of The Sleeping Beauty have been restaged by many major U.S. companies including Houston Ballet, American Ballet Theater, New York City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Ballet Austin, Ballet West, and Boston Ballet.

Reconstructions of the original The Sleeping Beauty productions have also been attempted over the years. The Mariinsky Ballet’s recreation in 1999 by Sergey Vikharev used the now preserved Sergeyev Collection housed in Harvard University. Royal Ballet also famously revived its 1946 production in 2006 with restored designs. And more recently Alexei Ratmansky’s magnificent reconstruction of The Sleeping Beauty used Baskt’s designs and premiered during American Ballet Theatre’s 75th anniversary in 2015.

SaraWebb and Artists of Houston Ballet - The Sleeping Beauty
Sara Webb as Aurora and Artists of Houston Ballet, Act I. Photography by Amitava Sarkar. Houston Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty. 2011.

Restaged and well-respected, Ben Stevenson’s The Sleeping Beauty is an enchanting ballet which honors the past productions of this historic fairy tale. Join us next week for part two of this special The Sleeping Beauty blog series where we talk all about our cherished classic. Tickets are on sell now by phone or online at with performances running until March 6.

Jessica Maria MacFarlane is the PR/Marketing Archival Intern for Houston Ballet and writes about dance in Houston for Arts & Culture Texas while passionately researching dance and literature in her spare time.


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