Many are familiar with “The Sleeping Beauty” because of the popular animated Disney movie. While the 1959 classic has become the de facto American version of the fairytale, its origins are richer. Passed down by a long tradition of family storytelling, the bewitching saga was first staged in the late 19th century when the art form was at its pinnacle of thriving in imperial Russia.
On Jan. 5, the Russian National Ballet Theatre will perform composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s production at the Century II Performing Arts Center to open Wichita Grand Opera’s season.
“The story of Sleeping Beauty is profound, charming and perfect for the entire family,” said Parvan Bakardiev, Wichita Grand Opera’s president and CEO. “We are doing the performance as a Sunday matinee to ensure that it is accessible to everybody, including senior citizens, people who are usually working during the week, and especially families with young children. Many, many children dream of being a princess or becoming a ballet star. Now they have the opportunity to see beyond the animation in a masterfully staged, high-quality production.”
In anticipation of this and other shows this season, Wichita Grand Opera is debuting a coloring contest for children ages 6-12. Children in the age brackets of 6-8, 9-10 and 11-12 can color selected drawings from scenes out of stories that will be performed this year. The three winners in each age group will have their work on display at Century II and a chance to be on stage during the April performance of “Tosca.” It’s an effort to foster an appreciation for opera in a younger audience.
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The staging of “The Sleeping Beauty” marks a return to Wichita Grand Opera for the Russian National Ballet Theatre, having put on “Swan Lake” in the spring. The touring company performs purely classical Russian ballet around the globe and is directed by Elena Radchenko, former Bolshoi ballet prima ballerina. It was founded in Moscow in the late 1980s, during the height of Perestroika’s transitional period.
“There’s a huge tradition of ballet in Russia,” Bakardiev said. “It became an art form for the common people of Russia because ballet signifies discipline, training, self-esteem, and is musically and visually very powerful.”
Bakardiev said the dancers of the Russian National Ballet Theatre are uniquely skilled to perform the work, noting that critics have often described them as “a cut above their rivals.” He praised Radchenko, who he noted was given a permanent appointment as artistic director by decree of the Russian president.
“Ballet and opera have always gone hand in hand. They have crossover audiences,” Bakardiev said. “Great opera companies such as the Bolshoi in Russia, the Vienna State Opera and the Paris Opera all combine world-class opera and ballet under one roof. I’m proud that we’re the only opera company in the region to take this approach.”
“The Sleeping Beauty’s” storyline unfolds over three acts and is set in the fairytale kingdom of King Florestan. Bakardiev said the themes of love, beauty and grace are evident throughout the production.
The tale opens as the king and queen celebrate the arrival of their first child, Princess Aurora, at a grand christening ceremony. The advent brings six fairies to the castle to grant gifts to the newborn. As the most powerful, the Lilac Fairy, arrives, the palace grows dark and a clap of thunder reveals the nefarious Carabosse. Enraged that she was not invited to the christening, Carabosse places a curse on the princess. Aurora is destined to become a beautiful and honorable young lady, but will prick her finger on a spindle and die on her 16th birthday. The Lilac Fairy intervenes, and while she cannot undo the curse, she alters it so Princess Aurora will sleep peacefully for 100 years and will only be awoken by the kiss of a handsome prince.
Sixteen years after the christening, guests from across the kingdom come to the castle to celebrate Aurora’s birthday. A quartet of cavaliers propose to Aurora, but she rebuffs each of them. When an old woman appears and gives her an enticing bouquet of flowers, Aurora dances with them, unaware that their beauty will seal her fate. Unbeknownst to anyone, the old woman is actually Carabosse. A spindle hidden inside the flowers pricks Aurora’s finger, inducing the prophesized deep sleep. Before anyone can catch Carabosse, she vanishes and the entire kingdom falls into a dark slumber.
One hundred years later, a forlorn Prince Desire is hunting in the forest with his troupe. Nothing can break his unhappy spell, but when the Lilac Fairy appears, she shows him a vision of Princess Aurora that turns his spirits. He is instantly love struck and makes his way to the enchanted kingdom. Ultimately, the prince succeeds in driving away Carabosse and awakes his sleeping beauty from her long sleep with a kiss. He proposes, and she happily accepts.
The final act is a wedding celebration with cameos by several fairytale characters, including Cinderella and her prince, Beauty and the Beast, Princess Florine from “The Blue Bird,” and the Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood.
“It’s a family story, a fairytale,” Bakardiev said. “Because it’s a simple story, it’s also profound and charming. It’s a very positive story that people can identify with. When you have a great execution with grace, endurance, stamina and fineness then you have a real ‘Sleeping Beauty’ on stage instead of looking at animations. You see the real thing.”
Tchaikovsky conducted the debut performance of “The Sleeping Beauty” in St. Petersburg in 1890. It remains one of the most popular and beloved ballets to date, largely due to its whimsical music and imaginative dance numbers.
“You get all the nuances in the music,” Bakardiev said. “It’s like all four seasons. Tchaikovsky is just a genius. Composers like him don’t die. The rest will come and go after having their 15 minutes of being famous. He lives on.”
The Jan. 5 staging will star Maria Sokolnikova as Princess Aurora. She was the winner of the prestigious Diaghilev Medal at the 2008 Serge Lifar International Ballet Contest. As a principal dancer with the Russian National Ballet Company, she has performed multiple lead roles, including Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet” and Masha in “The Nutcracker.” She also appeared in the dual roles of Odette and Odile in Wichita Grand Opera’s staging of “Swan Lake” last season.
Joining her for this performance in “The Sleeping Beauty” are Konstantin Marikin as Prince Desire, Maria Kluyeva as the Lilac Fairy, and a corps of about 50 dancers.
While “The Sleeping Beauty” is the official opener for the Wichita Grand Opera season, Bakardiev noted that KPTS will broadcast a full-length, subtitled version of last year’s performance of “The Marriage of Figaro” at 9 p.m. Saturday.
That airing is part of a larger effort by the company to build a year-round, global presence with the streaming of many past performances on You Tube. Currently, 18 full productions are available for viewing, with more being prepared.
“It’s been a tremendous response,” Bakardiev said. “In three months, we’ve had 54,000 viewers in 159 countries.”
Bakardiev said he hopes this new season, the new offerings of Wichita Grand Opera’s performances online, and in particular “The Sleeping Beauty” will inspire young people while delighting audiences across generations.
“I hope people who see this will walk away thinking of ballet as a feast for the eyes and as an inspiration for young people.”