Dancers in studio
Text: Astrid van Leeuwen | Photo: Altin Kaftira

‘A ballet that should be in your blood’

21 March 2022

Sir Peter Wright about ‘his’ Sleeping Beauty.

The premiere of Sir Peter Wright’s Sleeping Beauty, performed by Dutch National Ballet in 1981, was an important event in the Netherlands. Never before had a Dutch company presented a full-length ballet of such high calibre. ‘A real triumph’ and ‘a milestone in Dutch dance history’, wrote the press. Over 40 years later, Wright’s Beauty is just as successful. At the last series of performances, in 2017, the newspaper NRC Handelsblad called the ballet one of the highlights of the theatre season.

The 95-year-old Sir Peter Wright is himself surprised by how long it is since ‘his’ Sleeping Beauty – based on Marius Petipa’s original from 1890 – premiered in Amsterdam’s Stadsschouwburg. “It was one of the most exciting periods I’ve ever experienced. I remember well the thrill and the success.” He laughs, “It was the first time Dutch National Ballet had presented such a major production, so designer Philip Prowse and I thought we’d better pull out all the stops!”

Bible of classical ballet

The Englishman thinks it’s wonderful that Dutch National Ballet has remained faithful to his version over all those years. “In the past, I was sometimes concerned. Dutch National Ballet dances a lot of modern works, so I wondered whether the company would be able to switch quickly from performing a contemporary programme to the pure classical style demanded by The Sleeping Beauty. But I had no cause for concern. Dutch National Ballet has an excellent understanding of my production, also because most of the ballet masters have danced it themselves at some point. The Sleeping Beauty is the ‘bible of classical ballet’, so it’s important that the production is in your blood.”

Drama and emotion

Although Wright produced his Beauty with great respect for and knowledge of the tradition, it was never his intention to remain strictly faithful to what we know of Petipa’s original version. “No way – the audience would be bored to tears! When The Sleeping Beauty was first performed in 1890, it was a true ‘ballet de spectacle’. The story didn’t really matter; it was just a vehicle for all those wonderful fairy variations and divertissements. But audiences today want more. They want drama, a story and emotion. What I’ve done is try to unite these two ‘worlds’.”

Combination of everything

The way the great classics are performed has changed a lot too, says Wright. “If you see the photos from 1890, you realise that it must have looked very different back then. I don’t think those plump ballerinas could have achieved anything like the performances of dancers today. Even over the past 40 years, the standard has improved enormously all over the world – and Dutch National Ballet is no exception.”