Classical ballet

Meet Aurora from ‘Sleeping Beauty’: Her native language is classical ballet

Thanks to the composer Tchaikovsky and the choreographer Marius Petipa, the preparation for the heroine’s entrance in “La Belle au bois dormant” is the most powerful of all ballets. Act I is Princess Aurora’s 20th birthday. (Many productions change it to his 16th.) The scene begins with the king punishing, then forgiving, some harmless knitters for using needles in a court that bans them. The story has already been told: Aurore will prick her finger and die.

This, however, is her special day. The stage begins to be flooded with people. The Garland Waltz, a large ensemble number, is danced. Four princes, each a suitor hoping for Aurora’s hand in marriage, join the crowd; the same goes for Aurora’s suite of companions. Then the music slows down. We seem to hear the court’s heart beating in anticipation of Aurora’s arrival.

Aurora means “dawn”. When the princess enters, she appears like a ray of sunshine – flooding the scene with pre-adult beauty, charm and energy.

New York City Ballet is bringing Peter Martins’ 1991 production of The Complete Ballet to life this week and next (Wednesday through February 19). Mr. Martins takes the main frame of Petipa’s choreography while adding additional touches from him and others. (The Garland Waltz was choreographed in 1981 by George Balanchine, the company’s founding ballet master.) The video below features City Ballet director Tiler Peck in Aurora’s opening dance. It’s short – 40 seconds – but cluttered with incidents.

As she runs across the stage in an introductory zigzag, greeting her friends and family with upper body gestures, her feet sing with a youthful sheen – little sideways hops (paddle steps) and incisive points. After the first 10 seconds, his energy shifts to even higher spirits and greater contrasts. In a repeated phrase (13 seconds to 24 seconds), her torso leans forward as she emphasizes a small step (petit developpe); then another step (a wide, raised bend) opens his body wider; and a bigger and faster jump follows.

What does all this tell us? Aurora’s native language is classical ballet. Her parents express themselves only in mime, but she speaks pure dance (like her fairy godmothers in the Prologue of the ballet), and she perfectly masters its vocabulary and resources. Here she is all outward impulsiveness, but during the ballet she changes speed and mood again and again.

For dancers, this entry is renowned for its challenge: Aurora’s initial liveliness must change pace and scale as she meets the suitors and dances the famous and ceremonial Rose Adagio with them. (Since the 1940s this has featured a series of on-point exposed balances that add to the wispy nature of the adagio, but the whole number is, above all, a multi-faceted nuptial drama – that Aurora, n ‘having yet to meet Prince Right, leaves unresolved.)

Many ballerinas found the whole role elusive. Who is Aurora? She hardly expresses any personal emotion; others control his destiny; it starts happy and it ends happy, with a hundred years of zzz in between.

Still, the role has (to use a word beloved by actors) an arc, a huge one. This is demonstrated by the poignant grandeur of his very formal wedding pas de deux in Act III. This clip from 2013, where Ms. Peck is paired with Tyler Angle, shows some of the ballet’s most famous moments.

Not all of the choreography here is taken from Petipa’s original 1890 ballet: the zigzag of the moving lifts was probably revised in the mid-1950s by Margot Fonteyn, the role’s most famous interpreter, and the spectacular three plunges” fishes” (from 37 seconds) were added for the 1921 Diaghilev production. (“Fish” in the ballet refers to a crescent shape; you can see why they are called fish dips. Care must be taken whether the prince partners Aurora here with one arm or two; less secure partners must cling to her with both.) This kind of partnership, which would have seemed too acrobatic in Petipa’s time, has now become expressive; Aurora and her prince are stunning but not flashy.

What’s fascinating about these opening lifts is how they adapt to the music – matching its general phrasing in long legato sweeps rather than following the faster incident pulse. This shows us how close Aurora has come from the girl we saw in that Act I entry a hundred years ago. She was jubilant then and jubilant still today. But here, awake and at her wedding, she has become majestic.