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'Beauty' open to interpretation

Russian ballet, born in royalty, is ever-changing

Sleeping Beauty:

A Legend in Progress

By Tim Scholl

Yale University, 242 pp., illustrated, $35

The ballet ''Sleeping Beauty" was, at its 1890 debut in St. Petersburg, the ultimate homage to hereditary monarchy and czarist rule. This greatest of the three Tchaikovsky/Petipa collaborations -- ''The Nutcracker" and ''Swan Lake" being the others -- celebrated the triumph and continuation of royalty not only in Russia but also in France, where the ballet is set.

Based on the 17th-century fairy tale by Charles Perrault, the ballet's libretto was written a century after the French Revolution but blithely ignored that stain on the idea of kingship.

The leaders of post-Revolutionary Russia faced a more difficult challenge. ''Beauty" was far more immediate for them: It was, for all its Francophile flourishes, a Russian ballet, and a recent one. They were loath to get rid of it. So they changed it, to reflect the new political climate.

''Beauty" 's evolution is chronicled with skill and a mountain of detail in Tim Scholl's new book, ''Sleeping Beauty."

A professor of Russian at Oberlin College, Scholl has written extensively about ballet and participated in the 1999 reconstruction of ''Sleeping Beauty" at its birthplace, the Mariinsky Theatre. With this book, he's made a substantial contribution to the relatively sparse literature on classical ballet, through an analysis of the triumphs and tangles of a single pivotal work, one of the few full-length ballets to outlive its 19th-century origins.

While parts of the book will be too arcane for all but the most erudite balletomane, others will be of interest even to readers who follow politics more closely than dance. Example: 1924 revisions of the fairy-tale libretto turned the prince into the leader of a proletarian uprising who journeys to the Sunny Commune to bring Beauty back to life. ''In scarlet radiance and the flames of red banners," the rewrite goes, ''Aurora rises, the beautiful dawn of Worldwide Revolution."

This proposal never saw the light of the stage, but, Scholl writes, it signaled party functionaries' obsession with story lines in ballet at the very moment when Western ballet was focused on formalism, specifically on the abstract works of a Soviet migr, George Balanchine. The schism would continue almost to the end of the 20th century.

Through the lens of ''Beauty," Scholl gives a good sense of the priorities of the ballet-going public and press in 1890. The initial reviews ''circle consistently around four issues: the music, the plot, the visuals, and the ballet's genre," he writes. ''Compared to the column inches devoted to these, the choreography receives scant attention."

So there's some justification for the scant attention it receives in Scholl's book, where it is mentioned mainly in relation to the music, considered the most crucial aspect of the production, the reason for keeping it alive after the Revolution.

Well before the 1940s, Tchaikovsky had been canonized by communism. Petipa had a tougher time. It was not until the 1947 celebration of the 125th anniversary of the choreographer's birth that his status became unassailable. Scholl notes ''the removal of Petipa's remains to a better Leningrad cemetery" as one sign of his new rank.

Scholl goes off on a number of unexpected tangents, including one that traces the Perrault fairy tale to the same 13th-century Norse saga that inspired Wagner's ''Ring of the Nibelung." He contends that ''Petipa's Aurora and Wagner's Brunhilde are the same character."

Attempts at authenticity in re-creating 19th-century ballets can revolve around matters most people would consider minutiae. Discussing the 1999 revival in which he was involved, Scholl says the controversy centered on Maria Petipa's shoes and Nikolai Sergeyev's papers. Sergeyev was the Mariinsky director who used a form of notation named for its inventor, Vladimir Stepanov, to record the choreography of the classics. He brought the notations with him when he immigrated to the West in 1918; they eventually wound up in the Harvard Theatre Collection.

As for Maria Petipa -- the choreographer's daughter and the first Lilac Fairy -- photographs of her wearing a plumed helmet and heeled slippers were enough evidence for some to claim that Lilac wasn't a real dance role. Scholl cites photos of her in other Lilac costumes -- tutu and toe shoes -- and uses the Sergeyev notations, which indicate that Lilac did dance. Soviet dance historians, he claims, either didn't have the facts or ignored them.

Opponents of the 1999 reconstruction claimed that Sergeyev hadn't gotten it right in the first place. A Russian newspaper printed a sensationalist story about Scholl's ''finding" the long-lost Sergeyev notebooks, when they were at Harvard all along. (This part of the tale gets dicey, as the author has become a principal player.)

Scholl compares the relatively feasible process of rebuilding a well-documented St. Petersburg palace to the far more elusive one of resurrecting a ballet, and comments on the irony of traditionalists wanting to adhere to the familiar post-World War II Soviet version, while more radical voices wanted to dig deeper into the past.

By focusing on the '99 revival Scholl tells only part of ''Beauty" 's story, giving short shrift to key episodes including the 1946 London version with Margot Fonteyn that symbolized the rebirth of Britain after the war.

Scholl demonstrates that ''Beauty" is as flexible as a ballerina who can lift her leg in arabesque until it is perpendicular to the floor. Such an extreme gesture would have been thought crude in 1890, even if dancers of the era were sufficiently limber, which they weren't, which is part of the problem of reverting to the ''original": Do 21st-century ballerinas deliberately play down their hard-earned techniques?

''A Legend in Progress" is an apt subtitle for this valuable study. There have been many versions of ''Sleeping Beauty," and will be many more, appealing to different audiences for different reasons. ''Beauty" is very much in the eye of the beholder.

Christine Temin is a member of the Globe staff.

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