In addition to this passion-project research review, I’m also including part one and part two from my series about Houston Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty from its blog. Those posts are mostly just more general Sleeping Beauty and Ben Stevenson’s Beauty history. What can I say, I get carried away by dissecting and researching fairy-tale ballets.
the prologue begins.
Little did I know that in 2016 I would return to the fairy-tale ballet that I once obsessed over during my time at San Jac, with bright Jungian theories and POB’s 1989 Nureyev production. The ballet I referred with resentment during my first semester at TXST in a research essay about classical ballet and fairy-tale literature (Neumeier’s Little Mermaid ranked highest of all, so far).
Yes, this is a ballet post. But like everything in my life, there are many connections and networks that find their way into all of my dance writings. Literature and Jungian theory have worked themselves into the whole fabric of The Sleeping Beauty tale in ballet.
And here’s how it started for me: Joan Gould’s Spinning Straw Into Gold. I constantly carried this book around with me while I was working at San Jac’s library. It was a source of inspiration for all of the papers I wrote in the few ENG classes I took there. I’m talking deep archetype immersion via Gould’s visceral and personal writing!
Also, my fascination with fairy tales goes beyond the obligatory early ’90s Disney childhood (Belle is the best Disney Princess, followed closely by Merida and Jasmine. Period. All the others are BLAH!) I didn’t get into fairy-tale ballets until after high school; the gothic-raver in me was too focused on butoh and Martha Graham to worry about Aurora or Odette. Yet, I adored the art that was created based on fairy tales, like Burne-Jones’ Briar Rose series! And let’s not even go into my 10th grade obsession with A Perfect Circle’s “Sleeping Beauty”
But once it hit me, it hit me hard. Ever the researcher, I had the urge to retrace the origins of this classical ballet back through literature. And ask some questions, which apparently not many people were asking of the ballet: What does this fairy tale mean? Why sleep for 100 years? Why a Princess again?
You’d be surprised how many people still haven’t actually read Grimms or Perrault.
“Once upon a time there lived a king and queen who were grieved, more grieved than words can tell, because they had no children. They tried the waters of every country, made vows and pilgrimages, and did everything that could be done, but without result. At last, however, the queen found that her wishes were fulfilled, and in due course she gave birth to a daughter…”
Today, we rely on Disney for so much of our fantastical Princess pieces that we loose that touch of reality that these tales once had. Fairies were part of the realities of everyday working folk! These fairy tales aren’t just about “true love” and “good versus evil.” Those bland themes projected in the movies can be placed inside of EVERYTHING ever created really. No, what made fairy tales special was the reality that grounded them, hiding in plain sight for readers and artists.
“Take comfort, your Majesties,” she cried in a loud voice. “Your daughter shall not die. My power, it is true, is not enough to undo all that my aged kinswoman has decreed. The princess will indeed prick her hand with a spindle. But instead of dying she shall merely fall into a profound slumber that will last a hundred years. At the end of that time a king’s son shall come to awaken her.”
The whole Sleeping Beauty fairy tale is a complex web of sexuality, womanhood, codes of conduct, escapism, and the adulthood. Forget these themes and you are left with one simple, idiotic kiss that’s been recreated and overused and marketed to death. It’s not just about the kiss, you guys. Which brings me into ballet productions…
the vision triumphs.
We get wrapped up in beauty and majesty of Act I’s “Rose Adagio,” that sensual music and technical choreography. And because of that we often times forget to wake up for Act II’s Vision sequence, mainly the Pas d’action leading towards Act III. Pay attention, future audience members–you’re not asleep with Aurora and her court! Wake up for Act II!
After the usually lackluster transition from 100-years past to 100-years “present,” the entire ballet relies on how Aurora is presented to the just-introduced Prince. And, of course, how well the corps of nymphs or naiads (varies between productions, but don’t get the two confused; nymphs can live inside of rivers, forests, lakes while naiads are strict water-dwelling spirits) is utilized to emphasize a hidden fairy-tale world, out of reach from the Countess and her hunting party of nobles.
POB’s Nureyev staging of the Vision scene still wins my heart over; the Prince doesn’t even touch Aurora until 2 minutes in! Aurora is essential part of the nymph/naiad tribe, a beautiful vision of humanity that is also quite magical in her own right.
Another key ballet feature that makes the Vision scene the most climax of the ballet, making it more than just “true love,” is the Lilac Fairy. Whether she follows her traditional literary role as the youngest of fairies, giver of the last gift to the infant Aurora, or the traditional ballet role as the stoic, graceful, poised fairy who commands the pas d’action with mime rather than pirouettes all over the place, the Lilac Fairy reigns supreme. Act II is her true domain.
In Ben Stevenson’s staging with Desmound Heeley’s designs, the Lilac Fairy enters Act II with a fluttery, silken cape and lilac wand (I would have liked these beautiful objects to be included from the start, but you can’t win them all). She effortlessly rejuvenates the life of the moment with each movement, and she grants Aurora and Prince Florimound one new gift; hope.
Usually danced by the tallest girl in the company’s upper ranks, Lilac is a lot like the doppelgänger of Myrtha. The Violet to her Claire. Where Myrtha is all about isolation and complete devotion from her female clan of Willis, Lilac is all about inclusion and collective wonderment. She wants the Prince to dance with Aurora, but only after he listens to her story, her movement, before we get into his role in this story. So really, he’s not just a pair of lips, but at the same time, Sleeping Beauty–ballet and fairy tale—isn’t about the Prince.
This is Aurora’s journey, the female journey. Her lovely and supple variation during Act II is vital to the whole conversation about why sleep, why another Princess, why visions.
How can you go from a lost 16-year-old to a matured woman after 100 years of sleep? Is Aurora’s body maturing during those 100 years of sleep? Well, linking this back to Jungian theory: The mind’s maturity is often the truest signal of adulthood, which means real sleep–that deep REM kind–is what moves us from the inevitable stages of teenager to adult. Obvious symbols of virginity and sexuality from the Prologue and Act I aside, the Vision scene is a call to arms for rest, mentally and physically.
“Deep sleep coincides with the release of growth hormone in children and young adults. Many of the body’s cells also show increased production and reduced breakdown of proteins during deep sleep. Since proteins are the building blocks needed for cell growth and for repair of damage from factors like stress and ultraviolet rays, deep sleep may truly be “beauty sleep.” Activity in parts of the brain that control emotions, decision-making processes, and social interactions is drastically reduced during deep sleep, suggesting that this type of sleep may help people maintain optimal emotional and social functioning while they are awake. “
Aurora’s escape from the realities of being married off as a royal princess is on pause during Act II, only to be amped up for her rapid-fire wedding in Act III. In the fairy tale, the Princess and Prince actually spend a lot of time talking after she is awakened, then they marry.
“He was more at a loss than she, and we need not wonder at it; she had had time to think of what to say to him; for it is evident (though history says nothing of it) that the good fairy, during so long a sleep, had given her very pleasant dreams. To be brief, after four hours of talking they had not succeeded in uttering one half of the things they had to say to each other. “
That original “getting to know you” moment of this fairy tale–often glazed over to get to the marriage part–is thus transformed for ballet in the Vision scene of Act II. And unlike Giselle’s Act II, Sleeping beauty’s Act II isn’t just about the ethereal apparition of Aurora’s beauty which might slip away from the Prince at any moment.
And then there’s the Lilac Fairy, reminding us that we can’t sleep away our troubles. Awakening is a necessary stage to the process of maturity.
to be continued…
For further research in the ballet productions of The Sleeping Beauty, I STRONGLY recommend this book, Dancing the Fairy Tale: Producing and Performing The Sleeping Beauty by Laura Kay Rizzo. It helped me through my essays at TXST.