Ratmansky’s New ‘Sleeping Beauty’ Looks Back to 1890

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In Milan, a set designer for the American Ballet Theater and La Scala co-production of “The Sleeping Beauty,” taking a lakeside walk. The choreographer Alexei Ratmansky is mounting an opulent new production of Tchaikovsky’s fairy-tale classic for American Ballet Theater’s 75th- anniversary season.

Credit...Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times
  • Slide 1 of 9

    In Milan, a set designer for the American Ballet Theater and La Scala co-production of “The Sleeping Beauty,” taking a lakeside walk. The choreographer Alexei Ratmansky is mounting an opulent new production of Tchaikovsky’s fairy-tale classic for American Ballet Theater’s 75th- anniversary season.

    Credit...Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times

“Tremble with your feet!” “Gentle as feathers!” “Carry yourself; don’t just walk!”

Alexei Ratmansky, one of the 21st century’s most celebrated choreographers, was rehearsing dancers in American Ballet Theater’s studios and channeling the most important choreographer of the 19th century: Marius Petipa, the French-born ballet master whose decades of work in St. Petersburg essentially defined what we now think of as classical ballet.

When Mr. Ratmansky, the company’s artist in residence, was asked to mount an opulent new production of Tchaikovsky’s “The Sleeping Beauty” for Ballet Theater’s 75th anniversary season, he decided not to do a makeover, as he has done with other well-known works, including “The Nutcracker” and “Cinderella.” Instead, he would try to return to the dance’s roots and incorporate some steps that have lain dormant for a century, as Sleeping Beauty does herself.

So Mr. Ratmansky taught himself to decipher a long-obsolete form of dance notation used to record Petipa’s choreography around the turn of the last century, and spent countless hours studying notebooks of “The Sleeping Beauty,” taken out of Russia after the revolution and now kept at Houghton Library at Harvard. At the Bakhrushin theater museum in Moscow, he consulted little-known sketches made by Pavel Gerdt, who danced Prince Désiré at the ballet’s 1890 premiere, which provide a dancer’s-eye view of the choreography. And he pored over photographs, drawings and old films to try to get closer to the source.

“It’s constant amazement,” Mr. Ratmansky said of his research the other day as he prepared for the ballet’s premiere on Tuesday at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, Calif., before a run at the Metropolitan Opera House this spring. “I’ve learned more about Petipa in these last three months than I learned in my whole life — his phenomenal mastery of the craft, finding the threads he follows from the beginning to the end.”

The choreography required to mount a new ballet production is not confined to steps alone, as became clear when Ballet Theater allowed a reporter to watch its new “Sleeping Beauty” take shape over the past four months. Sitting in on early production meetings in which the company had to decide the basics, such as whether there would be one intermission or two (the production will have two); visiting a costume shop; and watching rehearsals gave a sense of the intense coordination needed to stage a ballet that will feature more than 160 performers, backdrops painted in Milan, and some 300 pairs of custom shoes made in Oregon and Germany.

The stakes are high with a work as beloved as “The Sleeping Beauty.” Many balletomanes see it as the apex of classical ballet, but many fans simply enjoy it as a fairy tale, with bits of its Tchaikovsky score familiar to children brought up on the Disney film “Sleeping Beauty” (1959), which turned its famous Garland Dance into the song “Once Upon a Dream.”

Mr. Ratmansky was animated in recent rehearsals, quick to jump up and demonstrate steps himself, showing how to make Puss-in-Boots and the White Cat a little friskier or Aurora a little more graceful or the Mazurka a little snappier. At times, Mr. Ratmansky — who first got to know the ballet as a boy in the Garland Dance at the Bolshoi, a company he went on to lead — would consult with his wife, Tatiana, who is assisting him and who carried around a binder filled with the old notation, known as Stepanov notation, which they learned to read together.

To the untrained eye, it looks like a mess of musical notes, curlicues, hashtags, doodles and squiggles. To Mr. Ratmansky, it is a map of the past that tells him where the dancers were, whether their feet were off or on the floor, on point or not, with legs straight or bent.

ImageIn New York, Alexei Ratmansky at rehearsal with Isabella Boylston.
Credit...Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

“The style of dancing should look, and be, different,” he said in an interview, noting that while it may appear less athletic than modern technique, it is more demanding in some ways. “There are more steps in a phrase and no breaks where the dancer can just walk from one corner to another and breathe a little bit and then start anew — not at all. It’s all filled out with steps.” If many of the steps hark back to the ballet’s earliest days, the production’s sets and costumes, by Richard Hudson, the Tony Award-winning designer, were inspired by another revered production: the financially ill-fated, but highly influential one that Léon Bakst created for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in London in 1921, which was retitled “The Sleeping Princess.” Creating a new ballet production requires thousands of decisions. Many were hammered out in meetings at Ballet Theater’s headquarters in the Flatiron district, above a movie theater, in a building whose dance studios are reached by manually operated elevators.

What is the running time? How many pages attend the Lilac Fairy? Should there be an explosion when the wicked fairy Carabosse exits? How much time is needed for scene changes? Could Ormsby Wilkins, the company’s music director, play music during the changes?

Kevin McKenzie, the company’s artistic director, urged the production team members to build in more time for changes than they thought they would need. “Typically, what happens when we have a new production, in all honesty, is we’re punching in the dark,” he said at one meeting. “We don’t know what we’re dealing with. So we have to have more time than it will take eventually.”

Casting questions had to be decided, so the costumes could be made. How many children would there be and how old should they be? Mr. Ratmansky was handed a photograph of boys and girls from the company’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School who were standing in order of height, as if in a police lineup. “Oh, I know them well now,” said Mr. Ratmansky, who had just created a dance for them that was performed at the company’s fall gala.

The clock was already ticking in October. Many of the costumes, especially for the supers, or supernumeraries, who have nondancing roles, were being made in Italy; the ballet is a co-production with Teatro alla Scala in Milan. Bruce Horowitz, Ballet Theater’s wardrobe supervisor, told Mr. Ratmansky that they needed to know how many to make.

“They’re going to have to build these costumes in November and December, because they’re going to have to get on a container to come here, which means we have to send them measurements, some sort of measurements,” he said.

By November, Mr. Hudson was choosing fabrics for the costumes that were being made for the principal dancers at Tricorne, a costume shop just south of the Port Authority bus terminal. He picked up a sumptuous tutu in a soft, Romantic shape that was festooned with exquisitely wrought roses. It had been made for Aurora, the sleeping beauty of the title, for one of her most famous dances: the Rose Adagio.

“It is surprisingly heavy, isn’t it?” he worried aloud.

Weight is always the enemy in costumes worn by ballet dancers who defy gravity for a living. But extra weight is especially unwelcome in the Rose Adagio, the showstopping dance in which the pre-sleeping Aurora must balance, on point, on one foot as each of her four suitors turns her around by her hand and then lets her go, leaving her briefly unsupported.

So Mr. Hudson conferred with the heads of Tricorne and after discussing the possibility of removing some of the roses, they decided to replace a hidden layer of heavy satin with some lighter-weight netting.

Credit...Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

Mr. Hudson had embarked on his own hunt for information about his source material that led to several continents. He hired a researcher to track down what could be learned about Bakst’s striking designs.

In an odd twist of fate, the fact that the Diaghilev production flopped financially may have helped preserve some of the materials.

“It went bust, so the sets and costumes were impounded,” Mr. Hudson said in an interview, noting that while some of the pieces were later used in tours, a rich trove of costumes and sketches from the production eventually wound up in museums including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the National Gallery of Australia.

But Mr. Hudson, who also collaborated with Mr. Ratmansky on “The Nutcracker,” made it clear that while he drew his inspiration from the Ballets Russes production, he was not trying to recreate it.

“I think if we recreated it, it wouldn’t work nowadays,” he said. “Everything’s changed. Dancers’ shapes have changed: They’re much thinner than they were in the 1920s; they’re much taller; they have longer legs. The lighting now is much more sophisticated than it used to be. I don’t think it would work at all. So I’ve just taken elements that have inspired me, and I’ve just sort of remixed it together and changed some colors.”

There are practical considerations too: He is not creating museum pieces, but costumes to be danced in. Sometimes, Mr. Hudson said, that can mean putting a panel of Lycra into the side of a doublet to make it more flexible or attaching jackets to britches with small pieces of elastic to keep them from riding up when dancers raise their arms.

A frenzy of stitching ensued on two continents, with some 600 yards of linen and corduroy used for the Garland Dress costumes, and 10 yards of gold brocade used to make the train of the dress that the Queen wears in Act III.

In the end, four large containers were brought to the United States by ship from Italy, bearing costumes, the three dozen giant drops that were painted at La Scala, and a number of large pieces of scenery and hand props. By February, the Ballet Theater headquarters had become something of a “Sleeping Beauty” factory, often with several rehearsals going on at once. Marcelo Gomes, who will dance the role of Prince Désiré, said that it took some effort to perform such a familiar ballet in a new style of dancing. “We’ve had to relearn a lot of things,” he said. “For me, it just feels closer to the fairy tale than you imagine ‘Sleeping Beauty’ to be.”

Of course, trying to recapture the past, and preserve dance, the most evanescent of art forms, is a tricky proposition. Historians can debate which versions of a ballet are more authentic, the written records or oral traditions. A 1999 production by the Mariinsky Ballet sought to recreate the 1890 production, relying in part on Stepanov notation, and ran almost four hours. Mr. Ratmansky’s version will be shorter and will include a number of steps that were added later — including the breathtaking fish dives — so it will better fit with the 1921-inspired sets and costumes. “It’s a very interesting counterbalancing of these different styles,” he said.

At a recent rehearsal, some dancers, assistants and coaches jotted down their own notes when Mr. Ratmansky spoke. Others recorded the steps he was teaching them, and which he learned from the old notebooks, on their smartphones.