In the famous Rose Adagio in “The Sleeping Beauty,” ballerinas find endless challenge in a series of (ideally) serene balances. Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Leta Biasucci and Lesley Rausch explain how they do it.
Editor’s Note: This is the first in an occasional series, in which we find out: “How do they do that?”
Sometimes, in a ballet, time stops. “The Sleeping Beauty,” coming to Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) in February, contains a legendary example. In the ballet’s first-act Rose Adagio, the ballerina playing Princess Aurora greets a series of four suitors at her 16th birthday party. Balanced on the tip of one pointe shoe, with a leg raised behind her and an arm gracefully arched over her head, she takes each gentleman’s hand in turn and then, for an instant — or more — lets go and floats the now-free arm skyward; finding, ideally, an ethereal moment of perfect balance.
It’s a feat repeated eight times in the five-minute Rose Adagio — once with each duke early in the adagio, and once more with each later, with a promenade (a slow, guided pirouette, in the same position) added. And, like the fouetté turns in “Swan Lake,” it’s an iconic moment in ballet history. Generations of ballerinas have gritted their teeth through those balances, beginning with the original “The Sleeping Beauty” performance, crafted by visionary Russian choreographer Marius Petipa for the Imperial Ballet in 1890. PNB’s version, a staple of the company since 2001 (and presented now for the last time), is choreographed by Ronald Hynd but closely based on Petipa’s original.
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The Rose Adagio was first performed by the original Princess Aurora, Italian ballerina Carlotta Brianza. Dance historian Jennifer Homans, in her book “Apollo’s Angels,” described the balances as the kind of innovative stunt frequently found in Italian ballet of the time. Petipa, fascinated by the technical mechanics of pointe work, “transformed it into a poetic metaphor,” wrote Homans. “Sustained by the lyricism of Tchaikovsky’s music, the ballerina’s balance represents her independence and strength of character: it was no longer a trick but a test of free will.”
That free-floating balance creates a breath-catching moment of beauty for an audience — and, for a dancer, an enormous amount of stress. “It feels like there’s a lot of pressure to accomplish it, because anyone in the audience can see what you’re supposed to be doing,” said PNB principal dancer Lesley Rausch, who with fellow principal Leta Biasucci took a break between rehearsals in January to talk about the challenges of playing Aurora — and, specifically, those devilish balances. (Also scheduled to dance the role of Princess Aurora during the run are Rachel Foster, Angelica Generosa and Laura Tisserand.)
Aurora is one of the most difficult roles in the ballet repertory; Rausch calls it the hardest “as far as control and purity of the technique.” It’s a marathon for a ballerina — Act I alone, Rausch notes, “almost feels like an entire full-length in one act” — and a virtuoso display of classical technique. “There’s not a step in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ that ballet students don’t know,” said Biasucci. The Rose Adagio begins just minutes after Aurora has made her first appearance onstage; adrenaline must be quickly transformed into effortless calm.
While an unsupported balance on pointe is something every young ballerina practices for countless hours at the barre, hitting a perfect one at center stage in front of an audience — in the middle of a long sequence on one leg — requires meticulous technique, fearless control and a little bit of help from the ballet gods. “You never know how it’s going to hit you in the moment,” said Rausch, laughing. “You have to let go — you cannot keep holding that poor man’s hand! He’s looking at you panicked, and you’re looking at him panicked, and you’re like, oh my goodness!”
It helps, said Biasucci, to run through a quick checklist — “being pulled up through the front of my hips, through my ribs stacked over my hips, my shoulders open, energy coming up over my arms” — and to be focused on shifting her weight very slightly to offset the movement of the raising arm. But essentially, she said, “I just hold my breath and go for it!”
Rausch makes sure that the male dancers accompanying her understand how she approaches the moment. “I pretty aggressively take their hand at first, because I want them to know where I am,” she explained. “Then I slightly loosen my fingers and move to the tip of their hand, before I let go. Instead of having my weight on their hand, I can take my own weight and know that I’m OK to just move my arm. For me that’s how it works, but it’s different for everyone.”
Despite all this, both Rausch and Biasucci said they try to not overthink it; the balance falters if you’re trying too hard. “If you tell yourself, you have to hit the balance and you fight for it, for me those are always the worst moments,” said Rausch. “For me, when I hit a good balance, it’s an accident. A happy accident — you allow it to happen, rather than force it to happen.”
And every now and then — sometimes in rehearsal, sometimes in performance — it does happen: that perfect balance. Margot Fonteyn, the legendary British ballerina for whom Princess Aurora was a trademark role, hit one at exactly the right time: her much-hyped debut New York performance in 1949. Her longtime Royal Ballet partner Robert Helpmann described the moment in a documentary about Fonteyn: “When she came to the third prince, she had caught such a miraculous balance that she didn’t even take his hand, she just smiled at him. Well, I thought the audience would explode.”
Rausch remembered exactly that happening once to another dancer in a rehearsal, years ago — to the dismay of stager Annette Page. (Page, a former star of the Royal Ballet and frequent Princess Aurora, was married to choreographer Hynd; they frequently traveled to Seattle to stage the ballet together.) “Annette was not happy,” Rausch said, of that moment. “She said, you must greet each one of your dukes. I don’t care about the balance, this is about greeting each one of the dukes.”
So while PNB’s Auroras are hoping to find themselves in the zone when the hand lets go — both Rausch and Biasucci breathlessly described the feeling of a perfect balance as “amazing!” — they’re focused, once the curtain rises, less on the specific steps and more on character and story. “The huge challenge is to do it with clarity and with lightness and freedom,” said Biasucci, of playing Aurora, “and to transcend the steps into storytelling, and let them all go away so they don’t look like steps.”
And possibly to find, as suits this fairy tale, just a bit of magic.
“The Sleeping Beauty,” Feb. 1-10; Pacific Northwest Ballet, Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $37-$189; 206-441-2424, pnb.org. This will be the final appearance of this production, which premiered at PNB in 2001 with choreography by Ronald Hynd and sets and costumes by Peter Docherty. A new production of the story ballet will be announced at a later date. Principal dancer Jonathan Porretta, whose retirement was announced this month, is scheduled to play the role of the wicked fairy Carabosse at all evening performances; PNB soloist Steven Loch will play the role at the Feb. 2, 9 and 10 matinees.
This story has been updated to reflect a PNB casting change made after publication.