It was the mid-1990s, and Mariinsky Ballet virtuoso Sergei Vikharev was perplexed. Post-glasnost, he was now dancing the ballets of once demonized defectors Michel Fokine and George Balanchine—set by licensed repetiteurs from inviolate “texts.” But who was protecting his own theater’s classics—Swan Lake, La Bayadère, The Sleeping Beauty? Where were their “texts”?
They existed, he found out, in faraway Harvard. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, Mariinsky chief repetiteur Nikolai Sergeyev had fled to the West with 33 cartons of notated ballets. By torturous chance, the cartons landed at a Harvard University library. Vikharev got copies. He taught himself the complicated Stepanov notation, starting with the consummate 1890 Tchaikovsky-Petipa classic, The Sleeping Beauty. A team of Russian colleagues scoured museums for images of the old décor and costumes.
After the Russian Revolution, Mariinsky chief repetiteur Nikolai Sergeyev had fled to the West with 33 cartons of notated ballets.
In 1999, Vikharev’s new-old The Sleeping Beauty came back to life in a surprising way. Gone were the blandly delicate Watteau pastels of the company’s “improved” The Sleeping Beauty of 1952. Instead, riotous reds, royal blues, flowery pinks, flounces, ruffles, stripes, and plumes on every hat. When I saw Vikharev’s re-creation soon after its premiere, it was as if a century had vanished. I was back in 1890, inside the head of Ivan Vsevolozhsky, the old-fashioned courtier and Mariinsky director who’d dreamed up The Sleeping Beauty in the first place, who’d matched Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky with Marius Petipa, and who’d done the décor himself in lavish tribute to ballet’s original chief courtier, Louis XIV.
An authentic artifact comes home? Not exactly. Ballet is tricky. Vikharev couldn’t fully restore Petipa’s Stepanov-notated choreography. (Alexei Ratmansky managed that at American Ballet Theatre in 2015.) Mariinsky dancers wouldn’t let him. Those 19th-century arabesques, held low, were “stupid.” Bodies had changed! How could Vikharev pretend 70 years of Soviet culture hadn’t happened? Why were Petipa’s supposed steps better than the 1952 “improvements”? Vikharev’s The Sleeping Beauty was put aside, and the Soviet edition brought back.
But this November 9 and 10, despite Vikharev’s accidental death, in 2017, at 55, his new-old The Sleeping Beauty returns, in all its raucous glory, to the imperial-blue-and-gold theater inside the sea-green neo-Baroque Mariinsky, where it was born. —Elizabeth Kendall