In time, the ballet’s musical-theater classicism and celebration of pure form became an ideal for modernism. After Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballets Russes, and Stravinsky, the composer from whom he commissioned successive premieres, had done so much to transform music and dance theater with the first vanguard of radical reform from 1910 to 1920, the marvels of Tchaikovsky’s music led them back to “The Sleeping Beauty.” Yet when Diaghilev put the ballet onstage (as “The Sleeping Princess,” 1921, in London), it was Petipa’s choreography that Stravinsky found as the revelation. In his autobiography, he hailed its demonstration of classical ballet as “the triumph of studied conception over vagueness, of the rule over the arbitrary, of order over the haphazard,” and called it “the perfect expression of the Apollonian principle.”
Musical intellectuals long condescended to Tchaikovsky. Today we can love his symphonies, concertos and operas while still admiring “The Sleeping Beauty” as the greatest of all ballet scores, the most fragrantly detailed and powerfully planned. Though there’s more going on in its music than in its choreography, Petipa’s stage action remains the ideal framework to help you feel what the music says. No wonder, the makers of the Ballets Russes revered “Beauty”! It had paved the way for them — and has never been surpassed.
For decades, Americans tended to allow “Beauty” to be the fief of visiting European ballet companies. (The Royal Ballet made its name in the United States with a vintage production in 1949 and kept returning with it as its most famous calling card.) Not so today.
Two American productions of this classic are surely now the world’s best,…