by Lew Whittington for The Dance Journal
Dancing the Fairy Tale, is Laura Katz Rizzo’s history of how The Sleeping Beauty ballet was first staged and performed in the US. But her seemingly benign title has a wry double-meaning as it chronicles the contributions of the many women worked to establish ballet in America in the last century have been virtually erased from the historical narrative.
Choreographer George Balanchine is the regarded at the architect of 20th century ballet in America as founder of Ballet Society and then the seminal New York City Ballet. But Katz Rizzo reveals the vision and artistry of the women working in the classrooms, rehearsal studios, tutoring and who were, along with Balanchine, equally important.
Katz Rizzo throws down more than one dance gauntlet to correct that record and opens up a slate of issues in her critical analysis of the industry and the disturbing facts that Balanchine, with impresario Lincoln Kirstein as well as influential critics like Edwin Denby dictated the male status quo in the industry then and asserts that a male-dominated hierarchy is maintained even today.
In her section ‘Women Creating Ballet’ Katz Rizzo brings to light the “countless other female leaders in the ballet field including Ninette de Valois, Agnes de Mille, Bronislava Nijinska, Ruth Page, Lucia Chase and Anna Pavlova.“ though they have been completely under represented until now. These luminaries contended with what Katz Rizzo observes as the “gendered aesthetic hierarchies that privileged the abstract modernist choreography of …Balanchine.“
The Sleeping Beauty ballet was created by composer Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky and choreographed by Marius Petipa in 1890 and is regarded as the epitome of Russian Imperial ballet classicism. It did not have its US premiere until 1937 when it was staged by Catherine Littlefield at the Robin Hood Dell in Philadelphia. After that, it was not seen again until Barbara Weisberger, founding artistic director of Pennsylvania Ballet, restaged the ballet in 1965. This was just a few short years after Balanchine chose Weisberger, as a gifted teacher, to establish the Pennsylvania Ballet School and company.
Balanchine himself cited the Littlefield School in suburban Philadelphia as exemplar of technique and artistry he envisioned for American ballet. Catherine Littlefield and her sister Dorothie traveled extensively in the 30s to Europe for intense training with legendary Russian ballerina Lubov Egorova, Leo Staats of the Paris Opera Ballet, as well as Luigi Albertieri a master pupil of Cecchetti. The Littlefields were so skillful that they synthesized “the entire Imperial orthodoxy of Russian ballet.”
Flash forward to Pennsylvania Ballet’s three productions of The Sleeping Beauty at pivotal times in their company life, Rizzo tracks the company’s rocky period between Weisberger’s 1965 Sleeping Beauty and the revivals of the ballet after Roy Kaiser became director.
Weisberger resigned as director in 1977, because of disagreements with the PB board and as a result, Balanchine temporarily banned the new leadership at PB to use his ballets without Barbara in charge. This was not arbitrary. Balanchine knew that the company’s standard Weisberger had assured was in jeopardy, at least in the short term.
Katz Rizzo expertly short-hands the company’s most perilous times as she chronicles the series of short term artistic directors, tumultuous shutdowns and their uncertain future. When Kaiser became artistic director in the mid-90s, he programmed The Sleeping Beauty as part of a campaign to revitalize the company, bring in audiences and as the author puts it to “stabilize” the artistic confusion of the previous thirty years.
The specific lineage of Sleeping Beauty was streamlined by PB for a new generation of dancers while still preserving a virtual living syllabus of Imperial ballet classicism. Katz Rizzo weighs in on female stereotyping that comes with the character that “perpetuates and challenges traditional constructions of femininity.” But, for ballerinas dancing Aurora, it is a creative pinnacle that makes it a transcendent journey for the ballerina that inspires their creativity, athleticism and articulates their empowerment.
Why are the ballerina’s experiences dancing the character drowned out by descriptions of their performance by critics and audiences? Katz Rizzo asks? In her chapters ‘Aurora Speaks’ and ’The Power of Dance Technique and the Agency of the Ballerina’ Pennsylvania Ballet former principals DeDe Barfield, Martha Chamberlain and Arantxa Ochoa who danced the roles in the 1997 and 2002 revivals, talk about constructing their most challenging part, that they say changed them as dancers and artists. Each ballerina describes how she approached Aurora’s unique artistry and how they made the part their own.
Katz Rizzo is Professor of Dance at Temple University and her research is impeccable. For those not used to reading scholarly prose, some of the methodology can seem heavy going, but without pause this is invaluable study should be required reading for anyone interested in Philadelphia’s ballet history, as well as being a rescued history of the actual accomplishments of the women of American dance.
Dancing the Fairy Tale | Producing and Performing The Sleeping Beauty
by Laura Katz Rizzo
Temple University Press
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