Sleeping Beauty: Fate and the Unconscious, or, A Great Partnership Gives It life

July 10, 2011

Sometimes I dread sitting through all the extra pageantry in Sleeping Beauty, but last Friday at ABT, I saw something else in the ballet: the idea of fate being equivalent to the unconscious.

In the scene where Prince Désiré’s friends blindfold him, he “sees” the castle and intuitively understands it’s his fate. But what is intuition? It seems to be controlled by fairies (divine beings), both good and bad, but he had to close his eyes to find them.


Likewise, Princess Aurora closes her eyes for 100 years, and during that time, she meets her fate too. She somehow participates in his dream, so that when she’s awakened by his kiss, she’s already in love with him. They are fated (with much manipulating from the Lilac Fairy) to get together and rule the land. It brings up the question, What rules your fate—your unconscious or some kind of divinity? Sleeping Beauty suggests that you need to plumb your unconscious desires in order to find your true power.

Alina Cojocaru in
The Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.


It’s the forces of good vs. evil that keep things in balance, but it really only comes across onstage if virtue is embodied as strongly as evil. With Martine van Hamel playing Carabosse, that’s a hard act to follow. She fills the stage with her gleeful revenge. Seething with contempt, she draws herself up tall with pride in her power. She makes evil tasty. For the oppositional pull between good and evil to work, the Lilac Fairy must overpower Carabosse’s spell with compassion. Yuriko Kajiya, stepping in for Maria Riccetto, had that compassion but didn’t have quite the amplitude of gesture.

The playing out of evil (begot of revenge) against good (begot of forgiveness) has a parallel subplot in the scene that opens Act II. Discovering that his ban on spindles has been violated, King Florestan flies into a fit of anger and orders a bunch of employees killed. Susan Jaffe, as the queen, gently touches his shoulders to bring him down from his murderous snit. When that doesn’t work, she takes his hand and places his palm on her cheek. And it works like a charm. He forgives the terrified workers.

This scene says so much to me. Touching the face of the woman he loves, feeling that touch, restores his humanity. I just love that! It says so much about people, about relationships, about love. And with Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg, one has no doubt that the young couple about to rule the kingdom have this power over each other. It’s obvious that just being near Aurora makes Prince Désiré happy.

Sleeping Beauty
is a stretch for modern audiences, and yet they flock to it, hoping to experience the thrill of good triumphing over evil. It takes a dancer like Cojocaru, so steeped in classical ballet, to make the story come alive. She seems untouched by modern life—you can’t imagine her pulling out an iPhone. Her balances in the Rose Adagio are simply an extension of her centeredness, her sense that all is right with the world. She breathes through those balances. And there’s a poignancy in her tenderness, just as there was in her Giselle.

It takes a partnership like the real-life relationship between Cojocaru and Kobborg to make their fated love believable. These two look genuinely elated to be dancing together. I so enjoyed seeing them steal soft looks to each in between the choreographed steps. And they are so rehearsed that the difficult lifts become easy. When, in the Aurora’s Wedding pas de deux she does the inside turn and dives into the fish, with him holding her with just one arm, it happens with such speed and assurance that you don’t have time to worry about it.

Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg in
The Sleeping Beauty. Photo by MIRA, Courtesy ABT.


There’s a moment in her Aurora’s Wedding variation that really got to me. On a diagonal, Aurora makes little rising hand circles while stepping on pointe, to the most exquisite violin solo. Most ballerinas just use their hands and make a delicate move of it. But Cojocaru involves her whole body as though planting seeds and watching them grow, or scooping up a child. This Aurora will be a nurturer, just like her mother was with the King.

OK now for the bad news: I see two enduring weaknesses of this production (staged by Kevin McKenzie, Gelsey Kirkland, and Michael Chernov). The first is that Prince Désiré doesn’t go through enough hardship to reach Aurora. She dances so much throughout the ballet, and she waits 100 years, whereas it’s relatively easy for him to get to her. He simply has the vision, meets her in his dream, and follows the Lilac Fairy to the castle. There’s a half-hearted attempt to give him some bravery by having Carabosse and her minions snare him in a giant web, but he’s released too easily. If he had to thrash around in that web and fight for his life, there would be greater cause for celebration at their wedding. (In NYC Ballet’s version, the prince hacks away at layers of overgrown flora to get to her, and that physical ordeal proves his love.)

The second thing is the crunching of the third-act divertissements into one piece of music (except for the Bluebird pas de deux, which remains intact). There are attempts at humor (e.g. Red Riding Hood’s wolf flirts with the Cat of Puss-in-Boots) but because the storybook characters have been denied their own music, it gets lost. I understand that the stagers wanted to tighten the ballet, but I would vote for losing some of the endless fairy variations or Aurora’s friends’ dances and reinstating Puss-in-Boots and Red Riding Hood. Those are the fun parts. And get rid of the fleeting Cinderella routine; it’s just an added bit of aborted storybook business, and she’s crashing this party anyway.

Cojocaru and Kobborg saved the day last Friday. And during their bows, when they knelt deeply to each other, one got the sense that their relationship is built on respect—the least you’d expect from a prince and princess.