Sir Peter Wright, Karin Schnabel en Lindsay Fischer tijdens een repetitie van The Sleeping Beauty (1981)
Sir Peter Wright, Karin Schnabel, Lindsay Fischer - The Sleeping Beauty (rehearsal, 1981) | Photo: Jorge Fatauros

Sir Peter Wright about ‘his’ Sleeping Beauty

5 October 2022

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 a high standard. ‘A real triumph’ and ‘a milestone in Dutch dance history’, wrote the press. Over forty 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.

Author: Astrid van Leeuwen

The 95-year-old Sir Peter Wright himself is surprised by how long it is since the premiere of ‘his’ Sleeping Beauty – based on Marius Petipa’s original from 1890 – took place in the Stadsschouwburg, in Amsterdam. “It was one of the most exciting periods I’ve ever experienced. I well remember the thrill and the success.”

All these years later, it still makes him chuckle. “It was the first time Dutch National Ballet had presented such a big production, so Philip Prowse (the fantastic designer I was working with) and I thought we’d better pull out all the stops!”

‘A ballet that should be in your blood’

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 needn’t have worried. Dutch National Ballet has an excellent understanding of my production, also because most of the ballet masters have danced it themselves at some point – or even at the premiere in 1981. The Sleeping Beauty is the ‘bible of classical ballet’, so it’s important that the production is in your blood, as it were.”


Italian style

“Furthermore, Dutch National Ballet values and understands my style”, says Wright. “For The Sleeping Beauty, I drew heavily on the Cecchetti method (named after the nineteenth-century Italian ballet master Enrico Cecchetti and known for its simplicity of line and purity of style – ed.). That’s because I think it’s much closer to the original Petipa style than the flamboyant, often exaggerated Russian style. The Russians may claim that they understand Petipa like no one else, but actually it’s not true. The only person who had a notation of the original production was Nikolai Sergeyev, who staged the ballet for the Vic-Wells Ballet in London (now The Royal Ballet – ed.) just before the war. And that’s the version I based my production on.”


Vat of snakes

However, it was never Wright’s intention to remain strictly faithful to what we know of the original version. “No way”, he reacts appalled. “The audience would be bored to tears! When The Sleeping Beauty was first performed in St Petersburg, 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’. And actually, the ballet tells only half the story, as the original fairy tale goes much further. The second part is full of horror. The prince’s mother wants to eat Aurora and her children, and when the prince prevents it just in time, he pushes his mother into a vat full of snakes. I’ve sometimes toyed with the idea of making the complete story into a ballet, but unfortunately I’m no longer up to it.”


High standard

The way it is performed has changed a lot too since the nineteenth century, says Wright. “If you look at the photos from that time, you realise it must have looked very different indeed. I can’t imagine that those plump ballerinas could have got anywhere near the achievements of dancers today.”

Even over the past 41 years, he says, the standard has improved enormously. “All over the world, and especially at Dutch National Ballet. When I came to Amsterdam in 1981, most of the dancers couldn’t even dance a mazurka, but now they don’t think twice about it. And although the group still has many different nationalities, it’s now much easier to get everyone on the same wavelength, as the dancers are better trained.”


Alexandra Radius

The role of the ‘sleeping beauty’ Aurora is demanding – probably the most demanding one in classical ballet. Wright says, “It’s a combination of everything. The ballerina who portrays her must be exceptionally musical and have a rock-solid technique. But I think the most important thing is the interpretation of the role. In each of the three acts, you have to portray another person.

In Act 1, it revolves around innocence, youth and the joy of living, in Act 2 you’re a vision, and in Act 3 you’ve grown into a woman of class, grace and grandeur.” Not every dancer is able to show those different sides of herself; some focus too strongly on the technical stunts of the role.”

Wright’s fondest memories are still of the performances by the British ballerina Margot Fonteyn. “The natural way she interpreted the different facets of her role was simply beautiful. But I must say that Alexandra Radius (who danced the premiere with Dutch National Ballet in 1981 – ed.) came very close. I always loved her. She was so classical; so pure.” Wright searches his memory: “There were certainly others at Dutch National Ballet who gave wonderful performances of the role. But their names escape me for the moment.”


Goose pimples

Besides Aurora, there is also a main role for mime in Wright’s Sleeping Beauty. “Originally, I didn’t like mime in ballet at all. But after watching Ronald Casenave (who staged a previous version of The Sleeping Beauty for Dutch National Ballet in 1972 – ed.) at work with the wicked fairy Carabosse, the Lilac Fairy and the mother of Giselle (in the ballet of the same name – ed.), I was bowled over. It was so wonderful, and so powerful. Then I understood that Sir Frederick Ashton was right: you need contrast in a ballet production. It can’t just be dancing, dancing and yet more dancing.”

Wright knows from experience that today’s generation of dancers sometimes struggles initially with the amount of mime. “In the beginning, most of them think all those gestures are silly. That’s until they realise what a huge impact that one precise gesture can have. Much of the role of Carabosse, for example, is made up of mime. If you do it well, the whole audience trembles and you give everyone goose pimples. If you don’t do it well, then it soon becomes really dreary.”