Rudolf Nureyev first staged Sleeping Beauty at La Scala in Milan. On 22 September 1966, the curtain went up on La Bella addormentata nel bosco with sets and costumes by Nicholas Georgiadis, Nureyev was Prince Florimund and Aurora was Carla Fracci.
In 1989, Nureyev said,
When I was first learning to dance in Ufa, my ballet master, who had belonged to the Kirov ballet, used to tell me that Sleeping Beauty was the “ballet of ballets”. And I couldn’t wait to try it. It was with the Kirov ballet that I later discovered what a glorious delight it was.
After his defection from the Soviet Union to the West in 1961, he waited just five years until he was given the opportunity of staging his own version.
Sleeping Beauty by Tchaikovsky and Marius Petipa, in fact, represents the pinnacle of classical ballet: ballet then proved itself as one of the major arts. This constitutes a historical event: after Sleeping Beauty, ballet could attract the greatest composers who did not hesitate when it came to working with the choreographers.
When he was restaging it for the London Festival Ballet in 1975, he remembered those years at the Kirov in an interview with The Times:
I became so fascinated that I was all eyes. I just looked at every step, at every member of the company moving whether to the right or to the left, which way they would make a bow or which way they would take off their hat, how they behaved in relation to each other.
I guess everyone takes the version he met first as a standard. At that time there was a very good production at the Kirov. All the costumes had historical justification; later they began cutting off all the details. It was all very… is sumptuous the word?
To create a sumptuous look in Milan, he turned to Nicholas Georgiadis, and his designs were used for subsequent productions in Canada, Vienna, Paris, Berlin, and London, though it was scaled back somewhat from the version seen on La Scala’s large stage:
You can be sure, this time there will be no real fountain on stage.
The fountain went, but some of the music was restored – performances at La Scala in the ’60s began at 8.45pm, so in a three-act ballet something had to go.
It is such a long work that we have to keep the intervals as short as possible, otherwise there is overtime to pay. In America [on tour with the National Ballet of Canada], we had only seven minutes to spare before overtime. If the last act began behind schedule, the Pas de cinq had to go.
Nureyev didn’t wish to copy the Kirov production – “To talk about reviving these classics just as they were is so much nonsense.” – and one of the reasons for this was the lack of steps for the Prince, which was often danced by Nureyev himself.
Petipa was limited by having Pavel Gerdt as principal dancer, who was then about 50, still looking rather good, rather stately and a great favourite with royalty. The only dancing male part was given to Cecchetti as the Bluebird.
The famously long and technically tricky solo Nureyev inserted after the hunting scene was not meant to be a solo at all but intended for Aurora as well, with her dancing separately, as a vision. It uses the intermezzo also used by Frederick Ashton for his pas de deux after the awakening kiss.
I started work on it but Carla Fracci, who was to dance Aurora, was delayed, and by the time she arrived I had already finished it as a solo.
In his review, John Percival in The Times wrote about Florimund’s solo:
Is it heresy to suggest that Nureyev has given himself too much to dance in this act? Some of it is excellent, some less so; and last night he tired visibly for a while, although the exertions of production might have been to blame. He was right back on form for the Act III solos, given with the pace and accelerating strength that are uniquely his.
One of Nureyev’s additions was taken from an idea by Petipa – it is an effective piece of dramatic action that Petipa was not allowed to stage. Nureyev said,
I have read that Petipa wanted Carabosse to push the king and queen aside and sit there, but Nicholas Sergeyev absolutely forbade it.
He put it in, and it worked splendidly.
When he was casting the ballet for the London Festival Ballet, Beryl Grey told him which dancers already knew the roles. Nureyev’s response?
Perhaps it’s best if they do something different, because I want them to dance my way, not what they know already.
On 16 April 1975 at the London Coliseum, Eva Evdokimova and Rudolf Nureyev took the leading roles. Reviewing the opening night, Percival began with,
There need be no doubt that Festival Ballet has a big hit with Rudolf Nureyev’s new production of The Sleeping Beauty.