“A Magical Love Affair”
By Jessica Maria MacFarlane
It’s our Artistic Director Emeritus Ben Stevenson’s 80th birthday this year! On February 16, we helped him celebrate with an informative and fun ‘Dance Talk’ at our Center for Dance. With Lauren Anderson at his side, he delighted our audience and staff with stories about his time in dance. When asked what inspires him, he simple repeated, “Music, music, music.” With so many ballet productions and reconstructions, ever wondered which historic version of The Sleeping Beauty Houston Ballet’s production derives from? Read on and you’ll soon find out! In part two of this two-part blog post, we dig into our archives and share some fun facts and photos about Ben Stevenson and his cherished production of The Sleeping Beauty now running at the Wortham Theater until March 6.
The Sleeping Beauty—with designs by Oliver Massel and additional choreography by Sir Anthony Dowell and Sir Frederick Ashton—was Ben Stevenson’s first full-length ballet he performed in at the Sadler’s Wells Ballet (formerly Vic-Wells Ballet, now Royal Ballet). This is where the direct inspiration for Houston Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty derives from, but it took a while for it to get from Stevenson’s memory to the Wortham Theater.
While at Sadler’s Wells, Stevenson learned mime for classical ballets like The Sleeping Beauty from the legendary ballerina, Tamara Karsavina (1885-1978). “She would make your imagination come alive. She’d mime DYING with all her emotion and passion, wildly crossing her arms for everyone in the audience to see.” This dedication to authentic storytelling is a tradition which Karsavina—a former principal with the Imperial Russian Ballet (renamed Kirov, now Mariinsky Ballet)—directly handed down from her time on stage with the Ballets Russes to Stevenson and Dame Margot Fonteyn (1919-1991).
Years later a draft of Stevenson’s The Sleeping Beauty was first created in 1967 for London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet). The illustrious Dame Margot first starred as Stevenson’s Princess Aurora at a later performance with Festival Ballet in Venice.
After its initial success, it was then recreated in collaboration with Fredric Franklin with Dame Margot guest performing as Aurora in 1971 for The National Ballet in Washington D.C. during the inaugural season at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. This was the first full-length American production of The Sleeping Beauty since Philadelphia Ballet’s staging in 1937. Stevenson’s The Sleeping Beauty was later brought to Houston Ballet in 1978 with Peter Farmer’s secondhand designs from a short-lived London-South African company.
In 1990 a newly designed version by Desmond Heeley was crafted to Stevenson’s staging in celebration of the centennial of Marius Ivanovich Petipa’s 1890 original production of The Sleeping Beauty. The 1990 original cast included Janie Parker as Princess Aurora, Li Cunxin as Prince Florimund, Lauren Anderson as Lilac Fairy, and Kristine Richmond as Carabosse.
This production was the phenomenal closing program for Houston Ballet’s 20th anniversary season. It’s the completed version seen today at Houston Ballet. Dame Margot Fonteyn considered Stevenson and Heeley’s lavish production a “ravishing” and “authentic” addition to The Sleeping Beauty tradition.
Desmond Heeley’s entire set and costume overhaul for The Sleeping Beauty in 1990 rang up to about $757,000 with 225 original costumes and 33 hand-painted back drops that pay tribute to British designer Oliver Massel’s Vic-Wells/Royal Ballet production. After spending two years planning and nine months crafting his designs, Heeley once said, “I call a production like this the ultimate collage. It’s a juggernaut, a glorious ballet to do, but it could break you.” Heeley’s costumes and sets are still under constant maintenance during our 2016 performances with all five casts rotating through them during the two-week run.
Along with the production team, The Sleeping Beauty is also a marathon for musicians. But just like the dancers of Houston Ballet, members of our Houston Ballet Orchestra–conducted by Ermanno Florio and David LaMarche for all 2016 performances–enjoy performing the classical aspects of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s technical score. Those are just a few reasons why more successful productions of The Sleeping Beauty are often found at highly-trained major ballet companies with sufficient time, funding, and orchestration.
Stevenson’s The Sleeping Beauty is also memorable because Dame Margot—at the age of 71—personally coached the dancers, specifically former principal Janie Parker, for the premiere. “I’ve known Ben [Stevenson] since he was 18 and in the corps [of the Sadler’s Wells/Royal Ballet]. He has a fine company here,” she once fondly mentioned in an interview from the premiere.
During her two-week stay in 1990, Dame Margot meticulously fine-tuned the company with her proficient wisdom. “What I try to help them with is in getting more light and shades of drama within the dancing. There has to be the thought and the understanding of what is going on,” she said. At our February ‘Dance Talk’ Stevenson added, “Dame Margot always said stillness and the eyes are the most important elements for ballet dancers. The eyes must connect with the audience, especially during The Sleeping Beauty.”
Emotional brilliance from the entire cast was vital for Stevenson and Dame Margot, sometimes more so than the dancer’s virtuosity. In keeping with Royal Ballet’s British style, Stevenson once noted that, “Aurora is not trying to win over the audience by showing how high she can get her legs up. I want her to be immersed in the story and dance with taste.”
Although she doesn’t appear as a fully-formed ballerina until Act I, Princess Aurora is undeniably the heart and soul of this fairy tale. “Aurora has to be a burst of sunlight and energy from the moment she first arrives to her wedding day,” recalls Stevenson.
At our ‘Dance Talk’ in February, Ben Stevenson only had kind words to say about Houston Ballet. “I’ve learned so much about myself from the dancers of this company,” he said. “It’s always been very special here, now and forever.” From all of us at Houston Ballet we thank you for your dedication to ballet and wish you a happy birthday, Ben Stevenson!
Join us next week on En Pointe with Houston Ballet for a new blog post about our brilliant Winter Mixed Rep program! Tickets for Ben Stevenson’s The Sleeping Beauty are still on sell now by phone or online at http://www.houstonballet.org/Ticketing-Schedule/Season-Calendar/The-Sleeping-Beauty/ with performances running until Sunday 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.