As a late-afternoon rehearsal in a vast studio at American Ballet Theatre's Manhattan headquarters got underway, a studious-looking man held a notebook and addressed the assembled dancers.
"Good evening. We're going to try to space the nymphs, Aurora, the Prince and the Lilac Fairy," he said.
Alexei Ratmansky, the company's artist in residence since 2009, was in the early stages of his most ambitious undertaking yet for ABT — an elaborate new production of "The Sleeping Beauty" that will be unveiled Tuesday at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, the first of eight performances featuring five casts in the two leading roles.
Over the past decade, Ratmansky, 46, has rapidly earned a reputation as one of the most inventive, sophisticated and prolific ballet choreographers of our time. He also has a deep respect for and love of ballet history — particularly from his native Russia — and has often created productions based on earlier, forgotten works.
But his immersion in the vast Russian ballet tradition reaches a new level with this "Sleeping Beauty." This production is not an occasion for him to express his bold originality as is the case with his "Nutcracker" that ABT will bring to the Segerstrom in December.
Rather, his approach to "Sleeping Beauty" is to re-create as closely as possible the 1890 choreography by Marius Petipa, often referred to as the father of classical ballet.
During the late 1800s, Vladimir Stepanov, a dancer in the Imperial Ballet, developed and published a system for notating ballet choreography that drew on principles of musical notation. In 1905, "The Sleeping Beauty" was notated using this system, by a team that included Nicholas Sergeyev, the company's régisseur. He brought that notated score and about 20 others with him when he left Russia after the 1917 Revolution for a career in the West.
Ratmansky and his wife, Tatiana, a former dancer and his assistant on the production, have learned to read the Stepanov notation. The notebook that he consulted in the ABT rehearsal was filled with the intricate tiny symbols of the ballet's notated score.
The company performed its first full-length "Sleeping Beauty" in 1976, a British-influenced production staged by Mary Skeaping. Two more have followed: one staged by Kenneth Macmillan in 1987, then a 2007 collaboration among Kevin McKenzie, Gelsey Kirkland and Michael Chernov. Given the expense and time investment required for such a large production, one wouldn't have expected another "Beauty" this soon.
But McKenzie, ABT's artistic director since 1992, was looking for a way to make a strong statement to mark this 75th-anniversary year.
"I thought we should get really daring for our anniversary," he said by phone. "I was trying to identify a ballet for which ABT has had either near-misses or couldn't really claim as its own and unique. 'Sleeping Beauty' came to mind. There was always something imperfect about it. I just wish we could get it right."
When he learned of Ratmansky's long-standing interest in staging the ballet from the Stepanov notation, the wheels for ABT's fourth "Beauty" production were set in motion. It is having its world premiere at Segerstrom because the company was offered a full week in the theater to work on it. "Segerstrom made the theater available for the entire week, which is unheard-of. We rarely get that kind of luxury," McKenzie said.
Post-rehearsal in ABT's conference room, Ratmansky said he considers "The Sleeping Beauty" "the highest achievement of Russian classical ballet." He had long envisioned creating his own production, all the more so after the Kirov (now Mariinsky) Ballet's 1999 production based on those early notations.
"It was a huge inspiration," he said. "I felt it didn't work 100%, but it opened the door that this notation can be used, and there is a lot of information that could bring back the original steps."
So when the opportunity arose at ABT, he knew from the start that his role was to honor Petipa — and to a greater extent than most versions of the ballet, which usually are credited as "after Petipa" and incorporate significant sections that have been passed down through generations.
"My idea is not to change things but to stay with what was written," he explained. "This is Petipa's choreography. I want to do as little as possible of my own."
Once he added to his already impressive knowledge of ballet history by learning to read the notated choreography (in the Harvard Theatre Collection, along with other related materials), he felt ready to approach the revered ballet.
"It all makes sense," he said of the tiny, extremely detailed notations. "If something doesn't, then you probably don't understand it. You need to look back at it and reconsider. When you change, it looks wrong — then when you find out what it is, then everything falls into place. It's like a puzzle, or deciphering a lost language."
So what will audiences see, and how different will it be from other versions of "Sleeping Beauty"? They will see familiar passages performed with unfamiliar stylistic approach and often, a different attack than they are used to.
"Some of it is very close. But it's all different in details — timing, some positions," Ratmansky said.
"Technically, it's very different. Certain steps are done on demi-pointe, not on full pointe. All the pirouettes are in low passé, not high passé. Everything is very clear — the height of the leg, where it's bent — and all of the angles, all the directions, and front or back. It's very difficult to do. I just talked to Diana [Vishneva, the opening-night Aurora] before the rehearsal, and she said her muscles are painful — it's so different and so difficult."
McKenzie has been fascinated by what he's seen in the rehearsals: "He's literally delving into the mind and soul of Petipa. When I look at some of this choreography, it's so beautiful that I'm stunned. How did we get from this to what we know now?"
Ratmansky has had a similar reaction as he discovered how the choreography evolved from "then" to "now." "All the changes, I feel, went from sophisticated and complex to simple," he said. "From the graceful to the pushy and athletic. From feminine to unisex. It's not progress, it's just changing the style."
For Gillian Murphy, who will dance Aurora on Wednesday, "The interesting challenge is to bring the contemporary knowledge that we have, that's been handed down through generations — and the evolution that we've had as dancers over that time — to make that material come to life in a way that honors the original intention. But also I think our modern use of footwork and port de bras will only enrich and enhance the original intention of Petipa."
Her partner, James Whiteside, observed that the choreographer "is trying to instill the same dynamic and attack and musicality that he would for something he was choreographing from scratch. Alexei always tries to give us motivations. He's very open to listening to what we have to say. It's definitely collaborative."
Adding another layer of historical reference are the elaborate, exquisitely detailed costume and set designs by Richard Hudson, who has worked on several Ratmansky ballets, including "The Nutcracker." His designs are inspired by those by Leon Bakst for the historic 1921 "Sleeping Princess" performed by Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in London.
"I haven't copied anything, but I studied the 1921 production very carefully and used it as inspiration," the British designer said recently by phone. "Alexei wanted me to give this production the same kind of decorative opulence that Bakst's production for Ballets Russes had." This has meant designing nearly 400 costumes, making this the largest ballet production on which he has worked.
Hudson was able to view some of the 1921 costumes and set designs at the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Museum of London. But while he has drawn on what Bakst (designer for many landmark Diaghilev ballets) created, Hudson had the freedom to make his own choices about colors and other details — and has filled in with his own invention when no documentation existed, as in the set for the Hunt Scene.
"The tutus are not traditional 'Sleeping Beauty' tutus; they're much more romantic and have slightly longer skirts — though I've made them shorter than they were in 1921. They're about knee-length. They have a much softer silhouette," he said.
He has been kept busy supervising workshops in both Italy — where the sets, backcloths, hats, masks and wigs were constructed — and New York, where most of the costumes, tiaras and jewelry were made.