The Sleeping Beauty Now
When the Evil Fairy Carabosse’s strident chords open a performance of The Sleeping Beauty, they augur not only a magnificent evening of dance and music, but, as if her magical powers hold sway over the fate of not only Aurora but of the ballerina herself, Carabosse’s theme foreshadows one of the most fiendishly difficult feats in the repertoire for the classical ballerina: the “Rose Adagio”. And indeed experience has taught us that the “Rose Adagio” can be nerve wracking not only for the dancer but also for the viewer.
The “Rose Adagio” comes at a point in the ballet when Princess Aurora is of an age to select a life partner, and as such the occasion should be an entirely joyous one. Of course, as the audience we know that Aurora must suffer before she finds her beloved, but here Aurora is meeting her four suitors for the first time, and she is the person who gets to choose. Consequently, although this is a momentous and exciting occasion, it is hardly the time for nervous nail biting or anxious butterflies in the stomach. Both critics and dancers have emphasised the difficulty of the sequence. Former Royal Ballet ballerina Deborah Bull describes it as “the most terrifying dance in the ballet repertoire” (qtd. in Jennings), while dance critic Judith Mackrell suggests that including so many unsupported balances in a single sequence of dancing “feels like cruelty”.
Structurally it is a major climax, because the audience has had to wait for an entire act for Aurora’s entrance, and then this entrance itself leads immediately into the celebrated attitude balances: firstly on their own, and then at the climax of the “Rose Adagio” itself, the promenades attitude followed by balances. It is a symbolic pas d’action marking Aurora’s coming of age and new independence. Tchaikovsky’s music is a glorious treat for the ears and Marius Petipa’s choreography an equally glorious sight.
Anyone who has watched Sleeping Beauty repeatedly will know that not only are different ballerinas more or less successful in making this passage appear joyful and easeful, but that the same ballerina on different nights might appear a lot more or less relaxed and confident in this same passage of the ballet. A cursory search on YouTube will testify to the frequent nervousness of the dancers, shown in their lack of interaction with their partners, their almost grim focus, visible reluctance to release the hand of their partner, or in contrast, their exaggerated smiles.
In Russia there is a tradition of the ballerina simply lifting the hand for the balances rather than taking the arm to fifth position, and indeed in our experience some of the most confident and elegant balances have been performed in this way. One instance was one Monday evening in 1993 with the Mariinsky ballerina Irina Shapchits, not so well known in this country; but another was with their prima ballerina of that time Altynai Asylmuratova. However, not all Russian ballerinas always choose this version, and probably for some audience members these are simply not as exciting as long held balances with the arm taken to fifth position; some people even prefer the ballerina to hold the balances for as long as possible while ignoring both the music and her partners.
On occasion the anticipatory anxiety seems worth it, that is, when the ballerina shows a beautifully held clear attitude line through the leg and torso, and calmly raises and lowers her arm, while timing her balances with the music and acknowledging each of her four partners. Lesley Collier in 1977 and Maria Almeida 11 years later are two former Royal Ballet ballerinas who dwell in my memory for achieving this breath-taking feat. As Judith Mackrell points out, “Every dedicated balletgoer has a story to tell of the great and disastrous Rose Adagios they have seen”.
Just as the “Rose Adagio” is a highlight in the choreography of The Sleeping Beauty, it is also frequently highlighted in reviews of performances, either sympathetically pointing out the ballerina’s tension and the “sigh of relief” when it is over, or revelling in how she conquered the balances, as in Neil Norman’s 2011 review of Marianela Núñez, who delivered “the fiendishly difficult balancing act of the Rose Adagio with bravura style, leaning into her phrase like an Olympic swimmer”.
And it’s not only the technical difficulty of the “Rose Adagio” that the dancer has to deal with: there seems to be an external pressure associated with this dance. Deborah Bull maintained that the balances and promenades were quite achievable in the studio, but in performance “a combination of dazzling lights, jangled nerves, and the absence of the studio’s four comforting walls makes balance an impossibility” (qtd. in Jennings). Hanna Weibye of The Arts Desk seems to empathise with this when she writes of the dancer waiting for an hour after the start of the performance until her entrance, when she has to “run on stage straight into the gimlet gaze of two thousand people watching for a wobble”.
But where, we wonder, does this extra pressure come from? When the critic Konstantin Skalkovsky of the Saint Petersburg Gazette reviewed the premiere in 1890 he described Carlotta Brianza’s dancing in Act I as “extremely elegant, masterfully and freely performed” (374). He referred to the “bright red costume which goes beautifully with the Italian ballerina’s black hair and eyes”, but there is nothing in the review that suggests that the choreography for Aurora in Act I is any more difficult than in the following two acts; and while the difficulty of the pirouettes and “steel points” are mentioned, there is no mention of perilous balances. Similarly, when Serge Diaghilev mounted his production of The Sleeping Princess in London, 1921, the critics concentrated on Léon Bakst’s extravagantly opulent designs, some of them in addition complaining that the production gave Aurora little opportunity to shine (MacDonald 274-76). In contrast, Cyril Beaumont wrote that Olga Spessivtseva, the first Aurora “had a splendid technique, poise, control which she displayed with art. Style, line, timing, poise, control – such were her attributes. Her pirouettes, her batterie, and her développés were models. Her poise and control when extending her raised leg in a développé were quite remarkable” (The Diaghilev Ballet 203-04). So, still no mention of “Rose Adagio” balances and promenades…
The question is then: when exactly did the “Rose Adagio” become so central to the meaning of the work, to the extent that in 2011 and 2012 Luke Jennings and Judith Mackrell respectively wrote a MoveTube just on this brief section of the ballet? We are suggesting that in this country it is inextricably bound up with the history of The Royal Ballet and the ballerina whose name became synonymous with the role of Aurora: Prima Ballerina Assoluta, Margot Fonteyn.
The Sleeping Beauty Then
In the 1930s the notion of British ballet, that is, the possibility of ballet becoming a part of British culture with its own repertoire, style and traditions, was just emerging. To help her to build a repertoire for her fledgling company, at that time named the Vic-Wells Ballet, Ninette de Valois employed Nicholas Sergueyev who had escaped the Soviet Union bringing with him notation scores of ballets from the Russian Imperial (now Mariinsky) Ballet that later came to be regarded as the “classics”, among them The Sleeping Beauty. The first production was staged in 1939 with Margot Fonteyn as Aurora. During the course of World War II ballet as an art form blossomed in Britain as companies toured the country, bringing much-needed entertainment to new audiences, including the armed forces. The prestige of de Valois’ company, now named the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, flourished, as the dancers’ stalwart persistence despite air raids, rationing and the daily toil of constant touring and performing was recognised as integral to the War effort.
During the War the Royal Opera House had functioned as a dance hall. In 1946 it reopened as a performance venue for opera and ballet with a new lavish production of the balletThe Sleeping Beauty danced by the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, now the resident company of Covent Garden, again with Margot Fonteyn in the eponymous role.
Since 1939 Fonteyn had gained much performing experience, but neither she nor the other dancers were accustomed to dancing in such an enormous venue. Frederick Ashton taught Fonteyn to hold positions so that they would register clearly throughout the house (Kavanagh 309). It seems highly unlikely that those positions would not have included the “Rose Adagio” balances in attitude. There are several recordings of Fonteyn dancing this scene, and on most occasions she lifts her arm swiftly, in response to Tchaikovsky’s score, holds it for a moment and then lowers it once the next prince has stepped forward to offer her his hand. Her smile is radiant, and she gives no sense of being nervous. The speed and ease of the port de bras together with her strong wrist control mean there is no distraction from the balances. It could also be that the promenades are taken at a slightly more leisurely pace than is currently customary, because she doesn’t seem to spend so much time assuring herself of her balance before releasing her partner’s hand.
The gala opening night of The Sleeping Beauty at the Opera House has gone down in the annals of British ballet history as a triumph. With the Royal Family in attendance as well as the Prime Minster and his cabinet, and dignitaries from the arts world, the tale of Aurora, symbol of the dawn, seems to have been perceived as a metaphor not only for the coming of age of British ballet and the Sadler’s Wells company, but a reawakening of British culture (albeit based on a Russian ballet) in an appropriately grand setting, and a return of daylight for the whole country after the dark night of the long years of war.
Beaumont states that the “Rose Adagio” “was well danced by Miss Fonteyn” (Dancers under my Lens 51). Given the reputation that Fonteyn developed, this almost seems like damning with faint raise, so to speak, but here at least is a specific reference to what has become such an iconic passage of dance. Fonteyn’s reputation was further boosted in 1949, when the company visited New York for the first time, again opening with The Sleeping Beauty, again with Fonteyn, and by all accounts scoring an even greater triumph. And Fonteyn’s “Rose Adagio” was no small part of this triumph, being elevated to the status of legend. As if foretelling this victory, Richard Buckle had asserted about Fonteyn’s “Rose Adagio”: “She supports the honour and glory of our nation and empire on the point of one beautiful foot!” (qtd. in Homans 428).
Robert Helpmann, Fonteyn’s long-time partner recalls the audience reaction on the opening night in New York to an unplanned moment: “When she came to the third prince, she’d caught such a miraculous balance that she didn’t even take his hand – she just smiled at him. Well I thought the audience would explode” (Dance on 4).
In our opinion historian Jennifer Homans is the writer who most effectively expresses the significance of these performances for the reputation of the company that was to receive a Royal charter just seven years later: “This kind of history does not easily fade from collective memory. In postwar Britain, ballet was recognised as a national art, a jewel in the (shrinking) British crown, and de Valois, Ashton and Fonteyn were its justly celebrated leaders” (428). It seems to us that in its connection with the establishment of ballet as an art form and the early glory days of the Royal Ballet, the “Rose Adagio” has become a hurdle, even a millstone, for ballerinas who perhaps feel they need to live up to the image of Fonteyn, and in this way put additional pressure on themselves when performing what is already a huge technical challenge.
What are your thoughts on the “Rose Adagio”? Is Margot Fonteyn the ballerina who comes to mind? How do you prefer the balances to be performed? How important are musicality and characterisation to you? Do you have any “Rose Adagio” treasured memories? Join the conversation on Twitter #RoseAdagio.
© Rosemarie Gerhard 2018
Next time on British Ballet Now and Then… Judith Mackrell, who has been dance critic of The Guardian since 1995 and of The Independent for nine years prior to that, is leaving to pursue other projects. In recognition of her exceptional contribution to ballet criticism in this country, we will be thinking about ballet criticism now and then.
Beaumont, Cyril W. Dancers Under My Lens. C. W. Beaumont, 1949.
—. The Diaghilev Balletin London. New ed., Putnam, 1945.
Dance on 4: Margot Fonteyn. Directed by Patricia Foy, 1989.
Garafola, Lynn. Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Oxford, UP, 1989.
Homans, Jennifer. Apollo’s Angels: a history of ballet. Granta, 2010.
Kavanagh, Julie. Secret Muses: the life of Frederick Ashton. Faber and Faber, 1996.
MacDonald, Nesta. Diaghilev Observed. Dance Books, 1975.
Mackrell, Judith. “MoveTube: the Rose Adagio from Sleeping Beauty”,The Guardian, 25 Oct. 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/oct/25/movetube-rose-adagio-sleeping-beauty. Accessed 5 June 2018.
Jennings, Luke. “MoveTube: Alina Cojocaru dances the Rose Adagio from The Sleeping Beauty”,The Guardian, 24 Nov. 2011, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2011/nov/24/alina-cojocaru-rose-adagio-sleeping-beauty. Accessed 5 June 2018.
Norman, Neil. “Ballet Review – The Sleeping Beauty, The Royal Ballet”, Sunday Express, 27 Oct. 2011, http://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/theatre/280024/Ballet-review-The-Sleeping-Beauty-The-Royal-Ballet. Accessed 5 June 2018.
Weibye, Hanna. “The Sleeping Beauty, The Royal Ballet”, The Arts Desk, 23 Feb. 2014, https://theartsdesk.com/dance/sleeping-beauty-royal-ballet-1. Accessed 5 June 2018.
5 thoughts on “The Sleeping Beauty Now and Then”
This is thought provoking and a joy to read – thank you for taking the time to research this topic! x
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Since writing this post we were lucky enough to see a beautiful Rose Adagio – full of character and musicality. It was Jurgita Dronina 🙂
What a useful discovery you have made. I checked your theory with the blunt instrument that is Google Books, searching for “rose adagio”+balance and “rose adage”+balance. You may be pleased to hear that no entries come up for any books published before the Second World War.
These searches also drew attention to Joan Lawson’s book ‘Classical Ballet: Its Style and Technique’ (1960) which has a wonderful passage about Fonteyn and the 1957/8 season.
Thank you for your comment. I took the Joan Lawson book out of the library to check out the passage you mention. Over the years I’ve heard anecdotally that Fonteyn was the ballerina who introduced the balances with the arms in 5th position, and it does seem logical that it is connected with the move to Covent Garden. Anyway, if you ever find any more sources on this topic, I’d love to know! Have a good weekend 🙂