- Dancing the Fairy Tale: Producing and Performing “The Sleeping Beauty.” by Laura Katz Rizzo
Just as a story changes with the teller, a dance changes in the body of the dancer. The dancer has the power to bring a beloved character to life through movement, years of training, and technical prowess, embodying centuries of tradition for a new generation. Yet the dancer’s voice is often lost after she exits the stage, leaving the storytelling about ballet itself to the critics, scholars, and historians.
In Dancing the Fairy Tale: Producing and Performing “The Sleeping Beauty,” dance scholar Laura Katz Rizzo uses a women’s studies perspective to frame the history of this iconic and challenging ballet as produced by the Pennsylvania Ballet in Philadelphia. By focusing on the women who have directed and performed Beauty, she rejects a perception that ballet dancers are merely silent and subservient putty for male choreographers to manipulate. Women, she says, “are literally at the center of the stage and outnumber their male counterparts by the hundreds,” and yet their power has been repeatedly overlooked by ballet critics and scholars (17). Indeed, women are the central characters of Beauty itself, from the vengeful and dark fairy Carabosse and the kind Lilac Fairy, to, of course, Aurora herself. Using the character of the Aurora as a metaphor, Rizzo deftly illuminates the agency and strength of the ballerina cast to play this technically demanding role and how the ballet reflects a collective desire for a world where good triumphs over evil, and we all live happily ever after.
In chapter 1, she sets the stage, accurately claiming that most writing on ballet has been from the perspective of the audience, specifically that of the male critic. She also argues that working dancers have not written significant critical work, not because they are not intelligent and articulate, but because they are not trained in the academic language of dance writing; they are trained in the rigorous steps of classical ballet. Rizzo says there is “an unfortunate gap” between the “lived experience of the ballerina and the lived experience of the ballet historian and critic” (14), which contributes to an overarching viewpoint that ballerinas are “objects of the male gaze on display for audience members and as female bodies disciplined by the political and social control of the capitalist patriarchy” (15). But without the dancers, the dance cannot exist. She explains that Beauty can be a metaphor for ballet itself because “ballet sleeps until it is reanimated by the dancing bodies of performers” (26).
She chooses the Pennsylvania Ballet to further shift the existing narrative of ballet history from New York City to the many successful and technically proficient professional companies around the United States, and because it was the first American company to produce Beauty. She caveats that her book [End Page 350] is not a comprehensive history or study of ballet in Philadelphia, but she includes detailed accounts of the challenges faced by the company and its directors, particularly as each production emerged in the wake of social and economic difficulties.
In chapters 2–4, she opens the curtain, revealing a detailed history of each production, starting with the ballet’s lavish premier in 1890 in Saint Petersburg, Russia, to the score by Pyotr Illych Tchaikovsky and choreography by Marius Petipa, whose works helped to shape the technique and popular perception of the classical ballet canon. Indeed, each subsequent production of Beauty is inevitably compared to this original, but she reminds us that, because this production appeared before the advent of film, it will never be reproduced exactly. Even if we did have a full score (sections of the ballet have been preserved in Benesh notation, a system to document dance and human movement), each generation of dancers has their own unique bodies, technical skill, and lived experiences.
She then describes the first professional Beauty with a live orchestra in the United States in Philadelphia in 1937, under the leadership of dancer Catherine Littlefield. With ingenuity and limited resources, Littlefield not only...