Long before Disney drew Snow White for the big screen, Princesses graced the stage in ballets dating back to the 1800’s. Most of the Princess stories originated in folk tales and novels and were produced as stage plays or ballets before television ever existed. Ballet has it’s roots deep in the 1400-1600’s when theatrical plays and dances were performed at the courts of kings and queens. It was considered not only a form of entertainment, but highly intellectual for audience members to decipher the meaning behind the dances. Modern ballet was first started in the courts of King Louis XIII when he produced his Ballet-Mascarade which was focused less on the intellectual story-telling and more on the elaborate costumes and masks and was highly rooted in pantomime – acting with gestures and facial expressions.
Ballet evolved and in the Romantic Era, the first “Princesses in Ballet” began appearing. The Ballet Romantic Era dates back to 1827 when Marie Taglioni performed in La Sylphide in Paris. This performance also introduced pointe work on a ballerina. Taglioni appeared in a “Romantic” Tutu which came down to just above her calves and showed her shoulders and arms setting a new fashion in ballet.
The next Princess Ballet in 1841 was Giselle also of the “Romantic” era. Giselle told the tragic story of a young peasant girl who fell in love with a young boy in her village. He did not tell her he was the Prince and when she discovered who he was and that he was engaged to another woman, she went mad and danced herself to death.
Don Quixote based on the famous novel by Miguel de Cervantes appeared in 1859. A Story of a fiery girl named Kitri and her love Basilio. After Don Quixote, Coppelia debuted in 1870. A fun ballet about Swanilda and Franz. Swanilda becomes jealous of Coppelia when she sees Franz blowing her kisses. Swanilda breaks into the Toy Maker’s home to learn more about Coppelia to discover she is a doll! Don Quixote and Coppelia were considered comedic ballets in comparison to the tragic stories of La Sylphide and Giselle.
In 1877, Swan Lake appeared. This was Tchaikovsky’s first ballet score and it was choreographed by Lev Ivanov. Another tragedy, the ballet tells of a Prince Siegfried who is told he must be married. He doesn’t believe in a love-less marriage, and is not fond of the idea. He and a friend head off to hunt when he stumbles across Swans on a Lake. He is ready to shoot a Swan, when it suddenly transforms into a beautiful woman. She tells him she is Odette, Queen of the Swans, and an evil sorcerer, Von Rothbart, has her under a curse that keeps her transformed as a swan until the full moon hit lakes. The curse can can only be broken by the promise of true love. Siegfried is determined to break the spell and asks Odette to meet him at the Ball. At the Ball, Von Rothbart has transformed his daughter Odile to appear in the likeness of Odette. Prince Siegfried dances with her and proclaims his love for Odile. Odette, in a nearby window, witnesses Prince Siegfried vow his love for Odile. She is instantly broken-hearted. Realizing his mistake, Siegfried rushes to Swan Lake. There he finds Odette distraught. He apologizes and she accepts his apology and they rekindle their love for each other. This victory is short lived when Von Rothbart appears again and expects Siegfried to affirm his commitment to Odile which would ultimately turn Odette into a Swan forever. Realizing their only escape is death, the two plunge into the lake to their deaths- killing Von Rothbart. The ballet ends with the pair ascending into heaven where they live in eternal love.
We are still waiting for the Disney version of Swan Lake…while hopefully less tragic for a child version of the story…who wouldn’t love a Swan Princess??? We can’t think of anything more graceful, pure and beautiful than a swan.
The first great Princess Ballet appeared in 1890 when Marius Petipa and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky teamed up to choreograph and compose the Sleeping Beauty. Comprised of a Prologue and 3 Acts, the ballet had all of the makings of a perfect Fairy Tale! Opening with the Prologue and the dances of 6 Fairies all invited to the baby Aurora’s Christening. The Lilac Fairy was the grandest of the fairies and was about to bestow her gift when the evil Fairy Carabosse arrives. She is upset she did not receive an invitation and curses the baby Aurora to prick her finger and die on her 16th birthday. Luckily the Lilac Fairy is able to save Aurora from death and rather she will be cursed to sleep for 100 years until awoken by true love’s kiss. In Act 1, the story progresses to Aurora growing to be beautiful and celebrating her 16th birthday. Four Princes have traveled from afar to seek Aurora’s hand in marriage. She dances the Rose Adagio with the four suitors. The Rose Adagio is a test of strength for all ballerinas. Soon after, a beggar woman appears and offers Aurora a bouquet. In her excitement she dances with the bouquet only to discover a spindle hidden beneath the stems. She pricks her finger and instantly falls to sleep. The kingdom, distraught, is once more graced by the Lilac Fairy who reminds them of the Sleeping Spell. She uses her magic to put the entire kingdom to sleep, so Aurora will have family and friends near when she wakes up in 100 years. In Act 2 we meet the handsome Prince Desire, he is on a hunting trip and is pretty unhappy. He is engaged to be married, but is not in love. Seeking more, the Lilac Fairy appears and shows him a vision of Aurora. He falls in love and the Lilac Fairy leads him to the Castle where Aurora sleeps. He kisses her breaking the spell.
In the final Act the Prince and Aurora celebrate their marriage. There is not a single ballet that creates such a Fairy Tale for a Prince and Princess. At the wedding, guests from surrounding lands are invited to celebrate: Puss N’ Boots and his White Cat, the Bluebirds, Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, and Jewels from afar. It’s truly a magical spectacle. The ballet ends with a lovely pas de deux between Aurora and her Prince. It’s no wonder Disney felt inspired by the ballet when creating his animated film almost 70 years later in 1959. You can even hear Tchaikovsky’s score in the animated film. Aurora’s song “I know you you” is sung to Tchaikovsky’s Op. 66 Act 1: The Spell (Le Sort est Jete): 6. Valse. You know Maleficent and her Pet Raven?? In the ballet, that music is the dance of Puss N’ Boots and the White Cat, which is considered a comedic and playful in the ballet; and yet, with Disney’s animation, the music tells a much darker and more sinister tale.
After Sleeping Beauty the Nutcracker made it’s debut in 1892. Much shorter (only 2 acts compared to 3 or 4), the Nutcracker is less about a Princess, and more about the adventure of a young girl and her dreams. Being transported to the Land of the Sweets ruled by the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier…it’s royal in it’s own right and is still performed by every major ballet company and even smaller dance studios put on small scale versions for holiday pleasure.
The following year, 1893 Cinderella debuted as a ballet choreographed by Enrico Cecchetti. This performance appeared in Russia with Ballerina Pierina Legnani as Cinderella. It is reported in this performance, was the first time a ballerina successfully completed 32 fouettés (consecutive turns on one leg while hopping up and down on pointe) in Russia. The original score (by Fitinhoff-Schell) was never taken down. The ballet has gone under many revivals including Lev Ivanov in 1898, and again in 1945 when Prokofiev introduced his score (which is used in most productions today). Sir Frederick Ashton choreographed his full-length Cinderella to Prokofiev’s score in 1948 for the Sadler’s Wells Ballet- most common productions are based on the Ashton/Prokofiev works.
More contemporary and modern Fairy Tale Ballets include “Beauty and the Beast” showing a debut of 2011 and the Snow Queen in 1998. The newest Princes Ballet, The Little Mermaid, was performed in 2016 for Charlotte Ballet and then right here in Colorado when the Colorado Ballet performed “The Little Mermaid” as part of their 2016-2017 season. It’s the newest Princess Ballet – and we couldn’t be more thrilled. Now when will they start making Super Hero ballets? …only time will tell?