English National Ballet star Alina Cojocaru was still a Royal Ballet principal in 2006 when she guest-starred in the Mariinsky Ballet's production of The Sleeping Beauty. And as this clip of her Aurora proves, she is indeed a vision in Act II's dream scene. Dancing alongside Andrian Fadeyev and Daria Pavlenko as Prince Désiré and the Lilac Fairy, the Romanian ballerina has an air of otherworldly majesty.
The first time I saw Sleeping Beauty was on video, the Kirov version with Larissa Lezhnina. The music for the first entrance gave me butter- flies. Aurora comes out, and it captured my heart. Larissa coached me for my first sea- son of Aurora, and just the fact that we were sharing the same studio—I couldn't get over it. One of the things she encouraged me to explore is after Aurora faints: You get back up, you look up at your parents and re- center yourself. For me, what feels natural is that you don't want anyone to worry. Maybe there is a moment where you get a little embarrassed. It's those small moments that make it feel very personal to me.
Your teacher at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, Marcia Dale Weary, recently passed away. What impact did she have on you?
I feel deeply indebted to her. She shaped my life's course, and I know that were it not for her, I would not be living out my dream today. She led by example through her remarkable commitment to her work, as well as her genuine kindness and generosity.
You were a trainee with San Francisco Ballet. What was that experience like?
It was an exposure to different schools of thought. We were mostly in the full-lengths, and watching run-throughs of Sleeping Beauty and Don Quixote was revolutionary for me. But I was young and far away from home. That transition was hard. My body started changing. It wanted to be fleshy. Biology is cruel in that way. I desperately wanted to fit in, but it wasn't meant to be.
Irina Kolpakova, currently a ballet mistress at American Ballet Theatre at age 85, is a living dance legend. She studied under Agrippina Vaganova and went on to dance as prima ballerina at the Kirov Ballet (now the Mariinsky). In the '60s, she astonished American audiences with her interpretation of Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty during the Kirov's U.S. tours. She was a partner to Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, and for the last 30 years she has set and coached ABT dancers in the classics.
With an influence that spans so many generations of dancers, it's not surprising that Kolpakova's youthful energy is one of her calling cards. That infectious quality is part of what makes Aurora her signature role. In this clip from 1982, Kolpakova, who was 49 at the time of the performance, channels the teenage Aurora's unbridled joy with purity and lightness in each step.
It's been an exciting few weeks in New York City with both American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet in the midst of their respective seasons at Lincoln Center. With so many homegrown stars in the spotlight, it's wonderful to remember the past generations of dancers who once lit up the same stages and helped shape American ballet into what is it today. One such luminary is former ABT principal Cynthia Gregory, whom Rudolf Nureyev dubbed the "American Prima Ballerina Assoluta." In this 1970's clip of her "Rose Adagio" from The Sleeping Beauty, it's plain to see how she enchanted balletomanes everywhere with her unaffected elegance.
Diana Vishneva gave her final performance with American Ballet Theatre last month after 12 years as a principal. The Russian ballerina made her first appearance with ABT even earlier as a guest artist in 2003. In this video of Aurora's Act III variation from the same year, it's easy to see why Vishneva was in demand all over the world.
Remember in the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty when Aurora's fairy godmothers fight over which dress is best, pink or blue? Watching Petipa's ballet, you might face a similar conflict: Do you prefer the young, spirited Aurora decked in rose pink from Act I? Or the cool yet lovely dream princess from Act II? In this clip from a 2003 Dutch National Ballet performance, San Francisco Ballet principal Sofiane Sylve embodies the silver radiance of her lunar setting. Her ice-blue tutu barely flares as she sails effortlessly in each attitude turn. Her grace and control are so refined that, if Sylve really were dancing in a mist-filled dream, she wouldn't disturb a single vapor.
Before joining SFB in 2008, Sylve danced at Dutch National Ballet and later New York City Ballet. In a 2012 Dance Magazine interview with former NYCB star Allegra Kent, Sylve said that she fell in love with ballet for its “relationship with the music." I'd say that she does that sacred relationship justice. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!
Ah, Aurora—the dream role of budding ballerinas and the milestone of professionals. (It's on the horizon for our June/July cover girl Cassandra Trenary, who makes her New York Aurora debut on June 29). Nearly every prima has performed the role, and Italian dancer Viviana Durante, former principal with The Royal Ballet, is no exception.
With impeccable musicality, Durante seems to pluck the violin's strings with her toes. Atop this precise staccato footwork undulate soft, swirling arms and an expression that asserts true joy. Sure, Durante may be acting Aurora's wedding day bliss, but to me that smile seems triumphant: the look of her self-assurance dancing one of ballet's most challenging yet rewarding roles.
Durante established her international reputation with a worldwide performing career. After leaving The Royal Ballet in 2001, she joined American Ballet Theatre and Tokyo's K-Ballet and guested in Italy, Germany, and beyond. Recently, she's served on the judging panels for English National Ballet's Emerging Dancer Competition and this year's Prix de Lausanne. Happy #TBT!
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Paris Opéra Ballet étoiles have to be more than exquisite dancers: They must have all the poise, authority and elegance it takes to command the Palais Garnier stage. As Aurora in this excerpt from a 2000 taping of The Sleeping Beauty, Aurélie Dupont radiates with quintessentially French classicism. Even before she starts dancing, she enthralls with the regal tilt of her chin and arch of an eyebrow while greeting the courtiers. She floats through the variation with delicacy and precision, luxuriating in the classical port de bras but also sustaining each piqué and pirouette.
A world-renowned artist during her career, Dupont will now be tested on an even grander level when she succeeds Benjamin Millepied as the artistic director of POB in July. Dupont joins the likes of Brigitte Lefèvre, Rosella Hightower and Violette Verdy, who recently passed away, as a ballerina-turned director at the world's oldest ballet company. If we could, we'd ask each: Which is more challenging, winning hearts as an étoile commanding the spotlight or as the director guiding it? Happy #ThrowbackThursday!
In Sleeping Beauty's Act III wedding pas de deux, the spotlight beams unwaveringly on dancers' technique; Petipa's choreography offers little to no reprieve in softening embraces, no rest in loving caresses. In this clip, Dame Antoinette Sibley—a principal at The Royal Ballet from 1956-1989—and Danish-born international star Peter Schaufuss rise to the occasion. Regal and poised, they perform each step with crystalline purity. Just look at the careful way Sibley places one pointed toe on the floor, as if stepping on glass, to rise from her knee. Schaufuss deftly partners her in the formidable pirouette-fish dive section. At the end, he tosses Sibley in the air and catches her effortlessly with one arm, as if he hadn't just danced some of the most taxing five minutes in classical ballet repertoire.
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."
Aurora's Act I solo in The Sleeping Beauty captures the young princess' girlish exuberance. But from a technical standpoint, its four long minutes almost feel like multiple variations. New York City Ballet principal Sterling Hyltin discusses how to master its many moods and tempos.
In most productions, Aurora's solo follows the Rose Adagio—one of the most stressful moments in classical ballet. Don't let the residual adrenaline throw you off. “It's helpful that the beginning of the variation is slow and controlled," Hyltin says. “I use the first series of balances in arabesque to pull myself together. You can also channel the energy left over from the Rose Adagio—it can help you project the young Aurora's spirit and eagerness."
Become a part of the onstage world
The variation is easier to get through if you interact with the other dancers onstage. “I like to distract myself by thinking about the fact that I'm socializing at my birthday party," Hyltin says. “In theory, the solo is all about Aurora, but I try to make it all about everyone else. You're surrounded by suitors, and they're all playing out their own little story arcs. Recognize each of them, and feed off their energy."
Allow the music to support you
Creating a dialogue with Tchaikovsky's score is especially helpful during the opening arabesques. “You can play with either the ascent or the descent of each arabesque," Hyltin says. “When you're really on your leg, you can alter your phrasing a little to stretch out that moment on pointe. When things don't work out so well, you can luxuriate in the tombé afterward."
Let the upper body tell the story
Without effective port de bras, the series of hops on pointe on the diagonal can feel overlong. “The footwork there is very simple, so a lot of that moment is about your upper body," Hyltin says. Try gesturing to each of your suitors in turn, or raising first one arm, then the other arm, and finally both to fifth. “Every movement should be elegant and regal, acknowledging your subjects. You want to show that Aurora will be a wonderful queen someday."
Stay on top of the manège
The variation concludes with a challenging manège of rapid coupés jetés and piqué turns, an expression of unbridled joy and energy—which can feel like a shock after the leisurely pace of the preceding sections. “Don't let yourself get behind the music!" Hyltin says. “It's hard because you're exhausted, but if you're trying to catch up going into that last piqué sequence, you'll get way too dizzy. Try to stay slightly ahead of the beat in the coupés jetés." And when you're done, take a deep breath. “After this solo, you almost feel like you're finished with the whole ballet," Hyltin says, laughing. “Some of the hardest parts are right up front. Let yourself relax and enjoy the rest."