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Sleeping Beauty
at the Paris Opéra Ballet

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 24 February 2000 - "Time, time, I have no time", was Rudolf Nureyev's frequent lament, yet just months before his enforced departure as artistic director of the Paris Opéra Ballet, he succeeded in re-staging his majestic version of The Sleeping Beauty, the most resplendent of all the great nineteenth century works.

Ten years on, the shining "ballet of ballets" has been polished and pruned, and minor imperfections smoothed away to provide a glittering setting for Aurora and her prince, sublimely interpreted on 18 January by Agnès Letestu and José Martinez, the charismatic star couple whose partnership dates back to the recreation of the work in March 1989. Their radiance and joy of dancing are making them unique in the world of classical ballet today.

Rudolf Nureyev's own story with The Sleeping Beauty in the West began in 1961, when he danced the role of the prince with the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas in Paris.

"I was in the corps de ballet at the time", recalled Opéra étoile (1972), Ghislaine Thesmar, who coached Sylvie Guillem and Agnès Letestu in the role of Aurora , "and I will never forget his dreadful white wig, covered with little pink beads which he said made him feel like a Christmas tree. Although it was a hot June evening, he thought he was taking part in a musical comedy and all the sequins and scintillating decorations were for Christmas."

"Several years later", she continued, "I partnered him when we performed the work together at the Palais des Congrès. He loved the idea of dancing it with a French girl because it was a French story, adapted into a ballet by a French choreographer. Dancing with him took me back in time, into the seventeenth century, where we were telling the fairy story to the very aristocratic world of the Russian Czar and his family."

"Rudolf considered it as an exercise in style that had to be danced in the grand academic manner. In his own productions, (1966, 1972, 1975, 1980, 1989, and 1992), each port de bras had to be danced in the classical manner, for he wanted the postures and positions seen in drawings of courtly dance during the reign of Louis XI. Protocol had to be respected, and you had to stand very straight to wear the structured costumes, the corsets, hats and feathers. We had to learn how to wear a costume as much as to dance the steps, and to respond to what he called the 'grandeur of the dream', for he had the soul of a child, and would relive the story each time he heard the music. He was very pure in that sense."

Not much can be done with Ezio Frigerio's glinting over-ornate scenery of the first act, especially made to fit the huge Bastille stage, with the gold and green curtain, the gold and green pillars in the palace, the golden doors, golden decorations, and gold on the costumes, but once you've swallowed that, you can settle down to a sumptuous feast of music, dance, and beauty, where each costume is a work of art by itself .

The choreography of Petipa has been handed down virtually intact, Nureyev having merely done away with a lot of what he called the 'bla bla chi-chi poo' flourishes added around the essential pieces, keeping the Rose adagio, and the grand pas de deux of the final act rigorously as they were.

What he has done, arousing the ire of many die-hard traditionalists, is introduce a seven minute solo for the prince in act 11, "monstrously" enlarging the role of the prince. And thank goodness he did, for, interpreted as it was on the evening I saw it, it is one of the most moving sequences of the work.

The origin of these steps lies in the fact that Nureyev rarely had time to warm-up before going on stage when on tour, and thus incorporated his exercises into the prince's variation when he escapes from a hunting party in the forest prior to falling in love with Aurora, who is brought to him in a vision.

Ghislaine Thesmar did not only partner Nureyev in The Sleeping Beauty. When she was eighteen, she was taught the role by Lubov Egorova, one of the greatest of all Russian teachers, who danced at the Maryinsky Theatre while Petipa was still working there. Closer to authenticity would be hard to get.

"Egorova was more concerned about the way I behaved than the steps I did", recalled Thesmar . "Aurora is a vulnerable young girl, a fifteen year old princess who grows up into a woman in the second half of the ballet, and then dances with the panache of a great aristocrat It's a very subtle role."

"I'm working as Rudolf wanted, with emphasis on the style and atmosphere. I want Letestu's Aurora to be totally spontaneous in the first act, and I'll love it if she makes some small mistakes, she's so wonderful and free. But in the last act we'll keep rigorously to the style. She is a ballerina with real star quality who lights up on stage, yet possesses the mental purity to become Aurora, who lives through pure love. Every emotion in this ballet is absolute, and there are no compromises."

"You can admire many great artists who dance very well, but they are not capable of giving everything as Letestu does, and when the audience feels that, it is exceptional. She is a gorgeous, wonderful, and beautiful woman, with the fragile heart of a very young girl. In common with Rudolf Nureyev, she believes in fairy-tales. Moreover, in José Martinez, she has the perfect partner . He brings her something more earthy, more fiery, from his Spanish heritage. She is happy with José, and on stage, something happens, for they both have the adrenaline to make it work."


Indeed, Agnès Letestu proved an exquisite Aurora from the moment she skipped light-heartedly onto the stage. She was natural and delicate in Act I, serene and lyrical in the vision scene, and danced with brilliance and panache in the grand pas de deux of the final act.

José Martinez , an authentic classical dancer, was not an ethereal story-book prince, but a lively, warm-hearted , very masculine young man searching for and finding his ame sœur, and his interpretation of the tricky, Act II variation was utterly magnificent. He dared to transform the jerky, rather fussy steps into a solo of great loveliness, timing it differently, slowing it down, and breaking the sequence of steps, at one with the music.

The scene with Beatrice Martel as the Lilac Fairy, who takes him by boat over misty waters to Aurora's castle was sheer poetry, beautifully interpreted, and the moment of Aurora's awakening pure enchantment

The grand pas de deux was brilliant and regal. Logical successors of a long line of Russian princes and princesses, Letestu and Martinez danced instinctively as one, their long, graceful limbs falling naturally along the same lines.

This is no airy-fairy, wishy-washy staging, but a work in keeping with the Kirov tradition, which is where it was created. Nureyev used to constantly remind the dancers that many of the soloists, including the fairies, were mistresses of the Czar and were very strong-minded young ladies full of spirit, speed, and energy, qualities which also had to come out in the dancing of Aurora.

The Sleeping Beauty embodies one of Nureyev's greatest gifts of all to the company ; in the wonderfully 'noble' bearing he instilled in them, and the classical excellence and precision to dance such works.

David Coleman directed the Orchestre de l'Opéra National de Paris who played splendidly, fully deserving their standing ovation. If they played Minkus a fraction this well, I should have no quarrel with them.


The Sleeping Beauty
Story by Marius Petipa and Ivan Vsevolojsky after a fairytale by Charles Perrault
Choreography by Rudolf Nureyev after Marius Petipa
Music by Tchaikovsky


Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She contributes to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.com.

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