Sleeping Beauty’s New Awakening via SSB

By Steven Libowitz   |   March 12, 2020

Two years after the #MeToo movement called attention to sexual harassment and power dynamics – and just a month after the landmark conviction of former Hollywood powerbroker Harvey Weinstein – it would seem almost counterintuitive to produce a traditional ballet version of the classic Sleeping Beauty story. In other words, a perfect stranger kissing an unconscious woman and thereby claiming her as his own might be, shall we say, a bit beyond anachronistic, perhaps too much for modern audiences to swallow given that such behavior is not only no longer heroic, but actually an indictable act of unwanted touching.

So, when State Street Ballet decided to mount its first-ever production of the favorite fairytale featuring Tchaikovsky’s classic score, it stood to reason that a trio of female choreographers might make for a fresh take that would work in our rapidly changing culture. Enter Cecily Stewart MacDougall, Megan Philipp, and Marina Fliagina, who have collaborated on the company’s ambitious family-oriented adaptation of the ballet, not only trimming a full hour from the normal 150-minute length, but making it relevant to contemporary audiences.

“Basically, we changed it so that the message we’re sending to young girls is one of self-empowerment,” explained MacDougall, who is also the company’s education director and the creator of the Library Dances program. “Let’s face it: the idea of getting kissed by a stranger 100 years after you fall asleep doesn’t work today.”

MacDougall and her fellow choreographers also wanted to modernize elements of the original ballet that was created 130 years ago, when French culture was all the rage in Russia, explaining why such characters as Little Red Riding Hood, the Bluebird, and even Cinderella show up at the wedding in the third act “because they were fairytales written by French authors,” she explained.

“Obviously it’s not as relevant in our culture today, so we have them show up in the forest earlier, where it makes sense to have such creatures,” she said. “They do their main variations while the prince is traveling through the forest on his quest to find princess Aurora.”

The whole time span takes less than a year, with the prince meeting Aurora on her 16th birthday before she falls asleep, and she’s only out for a few months when he comes to her rescue. The new timeline serves to romantically reflect the cycle of the seasons, an allegory of life itself, with subtle hints in the costumes and the color schemes of the staging, MacDougall said.

Indeed, many of the other updates come in costuming and props, including a massive 15-foot wearable dragon, designed by artist and UCSB professor Christina McCarthy, that serves as a sidekick to the wicked fairy Carabosse.

“My whole vision had the four men acting as different parts of the dragon, which is four different pieces that can come together or separate as needed and help move the set around,” MacDougall said. “It’s unreal when you see it on stage, a huge scale, just epic.”

Also on a huge scale is the cast of 66, which includes all of State Street Ballet’s Professional Track trainees as well as students from SSB-associated school Gustafson Dance, who join the company’s professional dancers to fill Sleeping Beauty’s 86 character roles.

While State Street Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty – which has a single public performance on Saturday, March 14, at 7:30 pm at the Granada – is billed as a family show, the new production should appeal to all ages, she said, partly because of her more contemporary choreography, which requires skills beyond typical ballet.

“The show is very athletic, and the dancers are being pushed in their technique and what we’re asking of them. It’s very technically challenging work. The children may not understand that, but they’ll love all the colors and movement, while the adults will be wowed.”


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