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About the Change

A Danish Beauty

Royal Danish Ballet are treating themselves to a new Sleeping Beauty. Jane Simpson talks to the choreographer: Christopher Wheeldon

© David Amzallag

Earlier Wheeldon Interviews...
February 2009
July 2004
September 2006
August 2003

RDB 'Sleeping Beauty' reviews

RDB reviews

RDB website:

Jane Simpson reviews

Christopher Wheeldon's constant travels have landed him for a few weeks in Copenhagen, where he's preparing a new production of The Sleeping Beauty for the Royal Danish Ballet. In the relatively quiet hour or so while the company was in class he talked to me about his plans and also gave me a preview of the very beautiful costumes - mostly not quite finished as the first night was still four weeks away.

The Production

Wheeldon can more or less pick and choose what he does these days, and he's only worked with RDB once before, making The Wanderers for Silja Schandorff and Kenneth Greve in the spring of 2008. So what attracted him to this particular job, with the months of hard work which would need to go into it?

"Well, I had a wonderful time here with The Wanderers - I found the dancers - the dancers that I worked with, anyway - to be very receptive, and I was excited about the prospect of doing something else. Nikolaj [Hübbe] had already suggested that perhaps I might do something, and then he said "We have a Sleeping Beauty but it's Helgi [Tomasson]'s production - it's an old Beauty. It would be great to have a new production and to have a young choreographer interpret it in a way that might be more appropriate to us, as a new generation with a new directorship". So I thought about it, for quite a long time actually, and I wasn't entirely sure: but then I saw La Sylphide. I'd never seen Sylphide danced by this company - up to that point I'd only seen them do Manon and Onegin, and then the Alonso - the Cuban - Don Quixote - which I wasn't so excited by: not really their cup of tea. But when I saw Sylphide, the lightness and the enchantment they conjured up for me made me think well, actually Sleeping Beauty could be quite a good idea, if it was approached in a way that was particular to them - to the company, and to their style. So I think that was the turning point for me. And the city has a magic about it, also - it's the home of Hans Christian Andersen and though of course he didn't write Sleeping Beauty there's a sort of fairytale dust about this place."

When I asked Hübbe, a year or so ago, why he'd chosen Wheeldon for this very big commission, he said without hesitation "Because of the Royal Ballet - because of him growing up with the Royal Ballet, and Sergeyev and the tradition of their Sleeping Beauty". Had he told Wheeldon the same thing?

"We spoke about it, and I certainly come from a training and a school that has an appreciation for Sleeping Beauty. It's part of the Royal Ballet School upbringing and it was one of the first productions I danced in at Covent Garden. I was a child in it - it was still the de Valois production when I was there - then I was a courtier, and before I left for New York I learnt the Florestan pas de trois - it was the first big role I learnt in the Royal Ballet. So Nikolaj knew that I was entrenched in Beauty, and it made sense for him, I guess."

"But I've seen a lot of productions by now - the French school, the Russian school, obviously the English school, and the American school, in the ABT production and in the NYCB production, which is one of Peter's more successful full-length ballets, I think - so there's a lot of information I've gathered, from both seeing and being in those pieces. But I'm very much more of the English school than I am of the Russian school, so far as Beauty is concerned, and I think trying to put the Russian version on this company would be a big mistake. It doesn't make sense for me to come in and make an Ashton recreation here, or a Petipa recreation. It would make sense if Nikolaj wanted that to bring in Christopher Newton to do a true Ashton-based production, or someone from the Kirov to do a Petipa-based production. He asked me to do it, so what I'm bringing are my influences - which are mixed, so anyone coming to see a reconstruction of a particular Beauty will be disappointed - it's not that. And there's a lot of my own choreography in the production as well."


Christopher Wheeldon with Gudrun Bojesen in the rehearsal studio
© David Amzallag
Click image for larger version, or one that fills the browser window

But there will be some Petipa left? You haven't thrown away the fairy variations, for instance?

"No, the fairy variations will be there, but in the same way that Ashton took the Petipa variations and made his versions of them, I've done the same thing - but yes, they are the fairy variations - it's all there. After all, what is the authentic Beauty? Since the first Petipa production it's become a hybrid. The 4-hour reconstruction the Kirov did - how traditional, how faithful is that really? The French have their production, which is Nureyev's of course, and has very little of the Petipa choreography in it - but Ashton, through the Sergeyev production, was very true and faithful to the spirit of Petipa, and then added his own, wonderful imprint and - with de Valois, of course, made it the English Beauty. So what I wanted to do was come here and make something that - above everything else - just worked well for these dancers, something that makes them look beautiful, makes them feel comfortable in a very difficult ballet, so they can communicate and give a really strong performance. I don't want just to say 'Here's an imprint that I'm going to stick on you, - you balance there, and if you don't balance there you're going to be in trouble' - because all that does is just make people freeze. The Danes have this wonderful sense of theatre and lightness of being on stage, that communicates so generously with the public, but their Don Quixote didn't come across as generous, it came across more as fear on stage: I think it's so important that they feel comfortable."

The Concept

The last time Wheeldon made a new version of a Russian classic was in 2004, when he produced Swan Lake for the Pennsylvania Ballet. That was a 'conceptual' makeover, starting in a rehearsal studio, and I wondered if he's planning a similar treatment for Beauty here.

"Yes and no. Swan Lake had an updated setting, but although there are ideas that are similar to those I had then, Beauty is set within a more traditional framework. It's really important to me that the fairytale and the magic aren't lost, but I do think Sleeping Beauty can be taken too seriously. It's a very serious work of course, but I think it can be quite boring unless you've got somebody absolutely unbelievable in the role of Aurora. For a ballerina it's the most challenging of all the full-length ballets, without question: in stamina, in the ability to transcend classical steps and create a portrayal - a sort of light, breezy, youthful portrayal that then shows a slipping towards womanhood - there's a very delicate, quite subtle acting ability involved in making Aurora work as more than just a showcase for classical line. And there are only a few in the world who can really carry off a pure rendition. I think my inspiration for this production is to go a little bit back to the fairytale, and combine the beauty of the lightness of the Danish dancing, with a little bit more of a sense of fun and magic and childlike innocence - so that's been the departure point.


Christopher Wheeldon
© Rosalie O'Connor

"The other thing that has interested me very much in Beauty is the idea of the balance between good and evil, and the characters of Carabosse and the Lilac Fairy being equals. (I'm not the first person to have done that - Peter Wright did it in his production for the Birmingham Royal Ballet. I admire that production very much - I think Sir Peter always has really intelligent ways of making the story come across really clearly to an audience.) They're a sister of darkness and a sister of light, in a sense - yin and yang - and I wanted very much to use them as the anchor for the story, as they seem to me in some ways to be the most interesting characters. [Sorella Englund will be Carabosse and Mette Bodtcher the Lilac Fairy - a non-dancing role as in Wright's production.] Aurora is a beautiful young princess who has everything - perhaps a little over-protected, because of Carabosse's curse - and for me Desiré is historically also something of a bland character, without much of a personality. He's troubled, he hasn't found love - he finds his love, falls in love with her very quickly - gets married to her. That's his journey.

"So what I wanted to do with him was to find a way to portray him as somebody who grows through the experience of finding himself inside this fairy tale. Perhaps he's just a man, not a prince at the beginning, and there's a way that we've staged it to show him entering the fairytale world as a man, and then progressively having to work to become the prince. He meets the Lilac Fairy, he's pulled into the fairytale, he's very much in awe, and amazed at the place that he's in, but he's still just a man. The Lilac Fairy shows him the sleeping princess, and he falls in love with her, but then on his journey from that point to the castle he has to fight the creatures of Carabosse, which gives him more confidence and strength. So it's his journey from a man to a prince, but also a little bit talking about a boy becoming mature as a man. I think it's a way to put the audience in the same place as the man, and to help them to relate to him more as a character - because Beauty can often feel so distant - it's always a beautiful tableau, but are we really in there, do we ever feel some kind of connection? I don't think we ever feel that emotional connection with the Prince and with Aurora that we do say with Siegfried and Odette."

Does that affect how you tell the story? Do we get the hunt scene, for instance? "No - the hunt's not there - sorry! Because the man who becomes the Prince enters the fairytale in a different way." I'm sorry too, as it's one of my favourite scenes in the ballet - but a Danish friend tells me that many people in Copenhagen see it as little more than a rehash of part of Bournonville's A Folk Tale so maybe it won't be too badly missed. What else has been cut?

"There'll be no knitting women. One of the things we've had to do with this production is make it very compact - not just beacuse I want to make it a palatable length for the public (which of course is always a good thing) but more so because it's the Christmas ballet, replacing the Nutcracker, and at weekends they're doing shows twice daily, at 12 and 4 - so to fit in with the orchestra's rules it has to last at most 2 hours and 15 minutes, including an interval. There's not actually an awful lot that's gone, but the curtain scene in Act 1 goes straight into the garland dance, so I've had to find ways to tell the story through other parts of the action."

While we're talking about the garland dance, will this be the same one you made for the Royal Ballet in London?

"No, it's my third - I don't think any of the writers noticed - or they certainly didn't write about it - that I did another garland dance for the Royal - that the second time it came back it was a completely different one from the first one - I redid it. So this is my third - it needed to be a garland dance that fitted this production, that made sense against the dancers here."

And - last question about production details - what solo will you give Aurora in the Vision Scene?

"It's a version of .... [sings and demonstrates]"


"After Ashton."

The Look

The sets and costumes for the new Beauty are by Jerome Kaplan. He did the decor for David Nixon's A Sleeping Beauty Tale a couple of years ago, but this is clearly going to show a very different part of the forest. Has Wheeldon collaborated with him before?

"No, this is the first time we've worked together. Jerome has this wonderful French eye for fabric and colour and style. His research is phenomenal - when we first started talking about Beauty he showed up at my apartment in New York and he had pages and pages of materials that he'd pulled from libraries in Paris. We talked about having some influence of the court of Louis XIV, and before he even started drawing we had this map of colour and painting to draw influences from. I was originally introduced to him by Ted [Brandsen], who was starting to work on Don Quixote with him at at the Dutch National Ballet and I said to him 'I want someone who can, without losing the essence of the fairy tale, give this a very modern look - who can make this a Sleeping Beauty of today, and not just a reproduction of something that we've seen before'.


Christopher Wheeldon with Alban Lendorf in the rehearsal studio
© David Amzallag
Click image for larger version, or one that fills the browser window

"We decided not to be slavish about period - a fairytale is a fairytale - but it has very much the feeling of the French court, and even the style of the scenery is based on some of that wonderful, rather naive, flat painted scenery of the court of Louis XIV, that sort of framework."

At that point Wheeldon decided that the easiest way for me to appreciate Kaplan's work on the costumes was for me to see them for myself. He is in and out of the costume shop 'every ten minutes', having one jacket shortened, another made lighter, checking the exact shade of the roses on a tutu bodice, making sure that Aurora's dress is not too pink. Kaplan has bought the fabrics in Paris and they are beautiful almost beyond belief - wonderfully subtle colours, lustrous gold and silver tissues, amazing patterns and embroidery. They must be so satisfying to work with, and if they carry even half their effect across the footlights, this should be a stunning production visually.

Four weeks isn't long to finalise every detail, bring the different casts (there will be six pairs of principals) together, write the programme notes, and so on and on and on. Walking round the theatre there's a feeling of a huge machine in motion, a dozen different bits of it working on different aspects, but all to the same ultimate target: opening night, November 26th.

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