Rediscovering Aurora: Inside Rehearsals for ABT's New "Sleeping Beauty"

Ballet mistress Irina Kolpakova rehearses Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes. Photo by Kyle Froman for Pointe.

It's two weeks before the March world premiere of American Ballet Theatre's The Sleeping Beauty at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, and principals Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes are hard at work. As the couple begins Princess Aurora and Prince Désiré's Act III wedding pas de deux, they exude a rediscovered sense of classicism that seems strangely exotic. Instead of six o'clock penchées and indulgent développés, Vishneva luxuriates in a world of arabesques allongées, modest extensions, lowered passés and softened ports de bras. But rather than appear antiquated, these stylistic inflections further accentuate what is going on above the waist—the engaging relationship between Aurora and her prince.

ABT's new Sleeping Beauty, a labor of love spearheaded by artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky and co-produced by La Scala in Milan, stands to be the crowning glory of ABT's 75th-anniversary season. “Of all the great full-lengths, The Sleeping Beauty stands as a perfect symbol of classical ballet," says artistic director Kevin McKenzie. “I wanted a production that we could call our own, and Alexei delivered it. It's a perfect anniversary gift."

Gillian Murphy with her partner, James Whiteside. Photo by Kyle Froman for Pointe.

"I try to bring myself to every moment in the ballet, my own understanding about trusting that all is good in the world: going from Aurora's slightly shy but joyous nature in the beginning to expressing a more serene quality in the second act to awakening back into the world again to meet her soul mate." –Gillian Murphy

What makes this version especially distinct is Ratmansky's commitment to restoring Marius Petipa's original choreography, which premiered in St. Petersburg in 1890. A team of régisseurs at the Mariinsky Ballet, using the Stepanov dance notation system, codified The Sleeping Beauty on paper in 1905. The documents were later smuggled out of Russia during the 1917 Russian Revolution; they are now housed at the Sergeyev Collection at Harvard University. Ratmansky and his wife, Tatiana, both of whom learned to read Stepanov notation, referenced this score as well as photographs and other documents to painstakingly reconstruct Petipa's original intention.

"It's fascinating to explore what we can piece together about the historical style and Petipa's choreography," says ABT principal Gillian Murphy, who is also dancing Aurora. "It looks easier because there are lower legs and more demi-pointe, but it actually feels more difficult because you're constantly restraining yourself. It takes extra energy to sort of put the breaks on."

Murphy notes that, for her, Aurora is one of the hardest roles in the classical repertoire because of the stamina and technical clarity it demands. "Sometimes the simplicity and purity of ballet can be the most difficult thing to accomplish and to make exciting," she says.

For principal Paloma Herrera, who performed as Aurora in March (before her May 27 retirement), that is precisely why the rehearsal process is so integral. "You have the technique inside you so that you can be free onstage, especially in a ballet like this," she says. "It's a fairy tale—complete magic."

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