“I lived in a magic dream, intoxicated,” recalled Léon Bakst, a designer for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, after witnessing Marius Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty at the Mariinsky Theatre. The ballet was a triumph of Gesamtkunstwerk—the Wagnerian ideal in which multiple art forms come together and flower in one work. Centuries later, it remains a challenge to achieve this feat for modern audiences. But there are those brave enough to try.

On October 24, the Vienna State Ballet will premiere a new production of The Sleeping Beauty. Despite the ballet’s famously perfunctory plot—“Don’t even look for meaning!” cried the Petersburg Gazette after the 1890 premiere—the choreographer Martin Schläpfer, who is also the company’s director, promises that the “libretto will be strengthened and made substantial” while keeping strict fidelity to Tchaikovsky’s unfailingly visual score.

“The set will be reduced, less concrete, but imaginative,” says Schläpfer. “In Act Two, for example, we will see a 3D animation of plants and forestry against the backdrop of Aurora’s bedroom, which is suspended in the air.” Costumes have been designed with a contemporary flair. “I don’t have too many tutus or wigs, but I do flirt with that aesthetic—Beauty is a fairy tale, after all.”

Most in the audience are familiar with The Sleeping Beauty’s proto-Christian tale. Princess Aurora is cursed at birth by the evil fairy Carabosse, enters a century-long kip, is duly rescued by the kiss of Prince Désiré, whom she swiftly marries in Act III—a royal wedding that includes a beloved divertissement danced by figures from Charles Perrault. Schläpfer says he looks at his version “more like a play. Characters are not forgotten, and we see more of them.” Insights into the narrative are generated by the questions he’s asked himself.

“I seek less lightness in the movement, a more grounded, heavy physicality,” says Schläpfer.

“How will I add color, so the four princes are individuals, competing for Aurora?” And why can’t a fairy have more emotional depth? “A fairy is ultimately a woman,” he says, “but more complex and harder to analyze.” Schläpfer hopes to give his princess some agency: “How does Aurora fall in love? I want to spend some time after Aurora’s kiss exploring this—it should not be that instant!” Finally, he wonders, “In the end, is it really good that wins over evil? Or is it that sort of in-between state that happens in life, which isn’t always that simple? Can Carabosse therefore be forgiven?”

The way these questions are answered lies in Schläpfer’s choreography. He believes that the modern ballet body—tauter, faster, stronger—has the ability to interpret material differently, be it through “complex timings, wilder muscle use, or interrogation of character.” Expect a balletic aesthetic for the 21st century: liberated lifts, syncopation, a lot more pointe work. Reflecting on what distinguishes his choreographic voice from modern masters such as MacMillan and Forsythe, Schläpfer says, “I seek less lightness in the movement, a more grounded, heavy physicality, while still keeping balance with the ethereality of the story.”

Purists can rest assured that the traditional anchor points remain secured. We will still see the tightrope balances of the “Rose Adagio”—enough to topple the most experienced prima ballerina (this writer, from bitter experience, would take Swan Lake’s 32 fouettés any day)—as well as the lauded virtuosity of the “Bluebird” pas de deux, in which the male dancer’s flurry of suspended brisés volés suggests a bird aloft.

The risk that comes with too much tinkering is the possible puncture of Petipa’s gossamer world. His Sleeping Beauty was, after all, the apogee of ballet for ballet’s sake—a synthesis of Russian visual splendor, France’s lyrical ballet-féerie, and the technical bravura of the Italians. But if it is to avoid a flaccid future as a museum relic, the ballet must prove itself anew to each generation. As Schläpfer says, “You could, of course, leave it untouched. Or you can go for it—with the highest respect for this challenge.”

The Sleeping Beauty is on at the Vienna State Ballet from October 24 through December 9

Genevieve Curtis is a London-based dance critic, feature writer, and choreographer. She is also a recovering former ballet dancer