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Every once in a while, the stars align, things fall precisely into place, and the perfect marketing campaign is born. Such is the case with New York City Ballet's new trailer for their upcoming run of The Sleeping Beauty.

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Ballet Stars
ABT in "Swan Lake." Petipa often collaborated with Lev Ivanov, who choreographed this ballet's white acts. Photo by John Grigaitis, Courtesy ABT.

Two hundred is the new 30. Or at least it seems so for Marius Petipa, whose ballets are as active as ever as we celebrate his 200th birthday this year.

Nearly all major ballet companies dance Petipa's iconic ballets, which reflect his prolific creative output. And they are heavy hitters: Swan Lake, La Bayadère, Le Corsaire, Don Quixote, The Nutcracker, Paquita, The Pharaoh's Daughter, Raymonda and The Sleeping Beauty, to name just a few of the 50-plus ballets he choreographed. He also revived and reworked earlier productions of Coppélia, La Fille mal gardée and Giselle. During American Ballet Theatre's 2018 spring season, five out of its eight weeks will be attributable to Petipa, including the debut of artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky's newly reconstructed Harlequinade.

Gabe Stone Shayer and Misty Copeland in "The Sleeping Beauty." Photo by Doug Gifford, Courtesy ABT.

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Ballet Stars

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.

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Ballet Stars
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."

 

Margot Fonteyn’s name ranks among the greatest artists of the 20th century. In an era wrought with shifts in literature, philosophy and dance, she captured audiences through her dancing in seemingly tangible ways. Here, it all begins within the first few seconds of this footage of the “Rose Adagio” from 1959—we can’t take our eyes off her. 

 

Ballet dancers who have seen the “Rose Adagio” know the simplistic nature of the steps (the first few phrases consist of bourrées and port de bras). It’s not until the famous promenades en attitude that the difficulty and control required for Aurora become clear (that oh-so simple spectacle makes us sweat). Nevertheless, Fonteyn treats each movement as a crucial component to Aurora’s character. No step goes unattended—each is backed with passion and intent. Perhaps this is what makes her interpretation of The Sleeping Beauty the archetypal standard for ballet dancers today.

Imagine what it would be like to be Princess Aurora on her 16th birthday. Never mind the pressure to choose a suitor—think of how difficult it must be to keep composed as the center of attention. To us, Aurora has an inherently beautiful, ethereal presence. But perhaps she’s like any 16-year-old girl—anxious to maintain the beauty that accompanies her every move. Ballet dancers face this challenge all the time—our minds race to maintain control so that the audience can enjoy a seemingly effortless performance.

It often takes a great ballerina like former Royal Ballet principal Darcey Bussell to show us how. In this 1999 video of the Rose Adagio from Sleeping Beauty, Bussell, as Princess Aurora, moves among her suitors. Each step could be a trap to lose control, but she never falters. Rather, she performs with a grace she sustained throughout her fruitful career. Watch how she demands her body to float throughout the famous balances and promenades en attitude. No matter which way she begins to fall, she catches herself with the composure of Princess Aurora at the ball. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

 

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