A little about Sleeping Beauty

In late March, California Ballet Company will be performing A Touch of the Classics. It will be an evening dedicated to classical storybook ballets. Each performance will be accompanied by a preshow chat with Director Maxine Mahon, detailing the history, artistry, and crafting of the classical ballets on the program.


We thought it would be fun to give our loyal readers a head start.


Let’s talk a little about the  classical ballet Sleeping Beauty.

It’s hard to find a ballet company that does not have Sleeping Beauty in its repertoire in one form or another. The ballet has been a part of California Ballet Company’s repertoire since 1989, when Director Maxine Mahon debuted the ballet’s third act with her own choreography. (The full-length ballet would follow in 2000.) Producing just the third act is a popular approach for many companies, as act three is perhaps one of the most fun acts in all of classical ballet. (You’ll see why once we get to the ballet’s synopsis.)

But what were the origins of this ballet? Who choreographed it? Who composed it?

Sleeping Beauty’s origin hails from St. Petersburg, Russia and the Russian Imperial Ballet. In the late 1880’s Ivan Vsevolozhsky, the then current director of the Imperial Ballet, commissioned ballet master Marius Petipa  to choreograph the ballet, and Peter Tchaikovsky to compose the score.

Vsevolozhsky Ivan Vsevolozhsky

This ballet was a final ditch effort for Petipa. In the few years leading up to Sleeping Beauty, the ballet master was losing his appeal to audiences. Fewer and fewer people were attending his ballets, and the director of the company was considering dispensing with the failing ballet master. If Sleeping Beauty was a flop, it would mean the end of the ballet legend.

Marius PetipaMarius Petipa 

And so collaboration began on what would become a long-lived, beloved staple in the ballet world.

SBEAUTY DSC_8368lowres

Petipa’s collaboration started with Director Vsevolozhsky. The two men worked together to create the ballet’s libretto. Most of us are familiar with the well known fairytale. We can thank a certain Theme Park and Animated Feature Company for our familiarity. The ballet, however, predates the Animated Feature by about seventy years. So, of course, Petipa and Vsevolozhsky pulled from the original source material, written by Charles Parrault of 17th century France, to write their libretto.

While the story as we know it today, and as it is told by the ballet, is clean and romantic, the original folk tale had some more decidedly gruesome details that were deemed not appropriate for the ballet stage. In the end, Petipa’s and Vsevolozhsky’s libretto became the simplified and family friendly interpretation of Sleeping Beauty that we’ve all come to know and love.

Of course, a good ballet needs good music. And who would you turn to for that music? Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky, of course!

TchaikovskyPeter Tchaikovsky 

SL19 copy

By the time that he was asked to compose the score for Sleeping Beauty, Tchaikovsky already had one four-act ballet under his belt: Swan Lake. His collaboration with the original choreographer, Julius Reisinger, was less than scintillating. Because of this bad experience, Tchaikovsky wanted to ensure that he had the full participation of the choreographer.

A meeting was set up between the composer, choreographer, and company director on November 6, 1888. At this time, Petipa handed Tchaikovsky detailed notes for the complete Prologue of the ballet, detailing what pieces of music he would need composed.

An example of Petipa’s notes to Tchaikovsky:

Act 2 Scene 3
No. 11 With a new wave of the fairy’s magic wand Aurora appears and rushes on stage. 6/8 for 24 [bars]. A voluptuous adagio. Coquettish allegro – ¾ for 48 [bars]. Variation for Aurora.
Coda in 6/8, concluding in 2/4. This is one pas.

No. 12. ‘Where is the divine being you showed me?’ Very agitated, passionate music. 32 bars for the transition into the panorama.

No.13. The boat is under way. The length of the music depends on the extent of the panorama.

No. 14. With a wave of her wand the fairy orders the gates to be opened. The entrance way is visible. A thick mist enshrouds the stage. A tender melody is heard. 32 bars of largo.

No. 15. Musical entr’acte. 

In an era where telecommunication was anything but instantaneous, notes like those above were vital to Tchaikovsky composing a coherent score. He took artistic license, of course, but the end product was nearly perfect. This close collaboration with Petipa during Sleeping Beauty laid the groundwork for the composer’s third ballet score, and perhaps his most enduring, The Nutcracker. He would  again closely collaborate with Marius Petipa for the Christmas-themed ballet.

Tchaikovsky was so inspired, so moved by the subject of the ballet, that he work quickly and tirelessly. He composed the ballet in, by his own calculations, about 40 days! He considered the score to be one of his best works, and was not surprisingly dismayed and disgruntled when Czar Alexander III dismissed his work as “Very nice.”


In the meantime, rehearsals for the ballet began in August of 1889. Tchaikovsky would deliver the finished music to the theatre act by act, providing the necessary music to get the ball rolling. Petipa would then employ a violinist to play the music for him in his home so that he would have basic choreography and floor patterns already drawn up before he ever set foot in the dance studio.

When the ballet premiered on January 15, 1890, it was to mixed reviews. People praised the performance of Italian Ballerina Carlotta Brianza (who had been wooed away from the Bolshoi Ballet for this production) for her brilliance and technique in the role of Princess Aurora. The ballet as a whole, however, was criticized for it’s high level of spectacle and lavishness (Vsevolozhsky was trying to hail back to the ballets of Louis XIV). The music was deemed “too serious.”

Carlotta BrianzaCarlotta Brianza as Aurora 

The funny thing is, criticism aside, Sleeping Beauty became a huge hit! Within two years, the ballet had been performed over 50 times. The success allowed Petipa the chance to continue his residence as ballet master, eventually leading to The Nutcracker (which was finished by his assistant Lev Ivanov as Petipa’s health failed). The ballet continued to flourish in Russia for the next few years, eventually spreading to Europe and abroad where it has become one of the most popular ballets in the classical repertoire.

As a side note, that Theme Park Company we mentioned earlier pulled music directly from Tchaikovsky’s score to put into their Animated feature. Once Upon a Dream’s melody is 100% Tchaikovsky.

And that’s a little history on the ballet. Now, what is the thing about? Well, you probably already know more or less the story of Sleeping Beauty:

A lovely princess is cursed to die an early death by an offended evil fairy. Her spell is softened by a good fairy, and the would-be demise becomes a deep sleep. After 100 years of slumber, a prince fights his way to the Princess, kisses her awake, and the two live happily ever after.

Sounds familiar, right? But how does it play out in the ballet? Here’s the synopsis. After reading it, when you go to see the ballet it should all make a lot more sense to you:

Prologue – The Christening

S Beauty LilacGroupweb

King Florestan and his Queen have invited all the fairies to be Godmothers at the christening of their infant daughter Aurora. The evil fairy, Carabosse (in the Animated Feature she’s called Maleficent), has been accidentally omitted from the invitations. Furiously angry at the insult, she curses Aurora, declaring that one day she will prick her finger and die. The Lilac Fairy confounds Carabosse’s curse by promising that Aurora will not die, but will fall into a deep slumber until the day a prince comes to awaken her with a kiss and marry her. The King orders all pointed objects be removed from his kingdom.

Act I – The Spell

S Beauty_DSC2105lowres

Now 20 years old, Aurora receives four princes who have come for her hand in marriage. The court gathers and celebrates the occasion. Aurora dances with each suitor, getting to know them in turn. Suddenly, an old woman appears and offers Aurora a bouquet of flowers. She accepts the bouquet to discover a long spindle hidden within it. Having never seen a spindle before, she accidentally pricks her finger appears to die. The old woman reveals herself as Carabosse, exultant that her curse has been come true. The Lilac Fairy appears to fulfill her promise, casts a sleep spell over the entire kingdom, and causes a forest to grow around the palace and its grounds.

sbeauty carabosse Carabosse and her minions

Act II – Scene 1 The Vision

A hundred years pass. Prince Desire is hunting in the forest near the old Florestan castle, when his companions leave him. While alone, the Lilac Fairy appears and shows him an image of Princess Aurora dancing among woodland sprites. Desire implores the Lilac Fairy to take him to where the Princess slumbers.

Act II – Scene 2 The Awakening


Following the Lilac Fairy, the prince enters the room where Aurora sleeps. As he awakens her with a kiss, the whole royal court comes back to life. Desire asks the King and Queen for Aurora’s hand in marriage, and they consent.

Act III – The Wedding


A joyous celebration! The entire kingdom gathers in honor Aurora and Desire on their wedding day. The royal court dances a polonaise, the fairies give their blessings, and fairytale characters make special appearances. The special guests include Puss ‘n Boots, Princess Florina and her Bluebird, and Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. The celebration culminates in the joining of Princess Aurora and Prince Desire.Cats


The Third act is commonly performed apart from the rest of the ballet. The wide variety of characters allows companies to showcase their dancers’ talent. The fun and celebratory atmosphere makes for a lively performance, and what other ballet can offer so many fairytale characters gathered in one place?

So, now you know a little about this wonderful ballet. Its rich history and vibrant story are endearing and enrapturing. If you haven’t had a chance to see Sleeping Beauty and you are in or near San Diego, we hope you’ll join us as we perform the third act in it entirety at A Touch of the Classics on March 26th and 27th.

Call our ticketing office at 858-560-6741 or go online to www.californiaballet.org for tickets and information.



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