Sleeping Beauty (French: La Belle au bois dormant, “The Beauty sleeping in the wood”) by Charles Perrault or Little Briar Rose (German: Dornröschen) by the Brothers Grimm is a classic fairytale involving a beautiful princess, enchantment, and a handsome prince. Written as an original literary tale, it was first published by Charles Perrault in Histoires ou contes du temps passé in 1697.

In 1959 the story was made into the 1959 Walt Disney animated film, which draws as much from Tchaikovsky’s ballet (premiered at Saint Petersburg in 1890) as it does from Perrault.

Michele Carafa composed La belle au bois dormant in 1825.

Before Tchaikovsky’s version, several ballet productions were based on the “sleeping beauty” theme, amongst which one from Eugène Scribe: in the winter of 1828–1829, the French playwright furnished a four-act mimed scenario as a basis for Aumer’s choreography of a four-act ballet-pantomime La Belle au Bois Dormant. Scribe wisely omitted the violence of the second part of Perrault’s tale for the ballet, which was set by Hérold and first staged at the Académie Royale in Paris on 27 April 1829. Though Hérold popularized his piece with a piano Rondo brilliant based on themes from the music, he was not successful in getting the ballet staged again.

When Ivan Vsevolozhsky, the Director of the Imperial Theatres in Saint Petersburg, wrote to Tchaikovsky on 25 May 1888, suggesting a ballet based on Perrault’s tale, he also cut the violent second half, climaxed the action with the Awakening Kiss, and followed with a conventional festive last act, a series of bravura variations.

Although Tchaikovsky may not have been very eager to compose a new ballet (remembering that the reception of his Swan Lake ballet music, staged eleven seasons earlier, had only been lukewarm), he set to work with Vsevolovzhsky’s scenario. The ballet, with Tchaikovsky’s music (his Opus 66) and choreography by Marius Petipa, was premiered in the Saint Petersburg Mariinsky Theatre on 24 January 1890.

Besides being Tchaikovsky’s first major success in ballet composition, it set a new standard for what is now called “Classical Ballet”, and remained one of the all-time favourites in the whole of the ballet repertoire. Sleeping Beauty was the first ballet that impresario Sergei Diaghilev ever saw – he later recorded in his memoirs – and also the first that ballerinas Anna Pavlova and Galina Ulanova ever saw, and the ballet that introduced the Russian dancer Rudolph Nureyev to European audiences. Diaghilev staged the ballet himself in 1921 in London with the Ballets Russes. Choreographer George Balanchine made his stage debut as a gilded Cupid sitting on a gilded cage, in the last act divertissements.

Mimed and danced versions of the ballet survived in the distinctly British genre of pantomime, with Carabosse, the evil fairy, a famous travesti role.

Maurice Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye includes a movement entitled Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant (Pavane of the Beauty in the Sleeping Wood). This piece was also later developed into a ballet.

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