Have you ever noticed that the first variations you usually learn are all from 1890 Petipa classic: The Sleeping Beauty? You might think they are lame or boring, but these six variations are the key to classical ballet. Sleeping Beauty is by definition the epitome and pinnacle of Classical Ballet. The ballet itself has no affectations and minimal stylistic points from the Romantic Ballet Era. These six variations showcase everything Classical Ballet represents: constraint, placement, beauty, proportion, turnout, legs, feet, musicality and artistry that evokes the essence of ballet.
As promised, I am going to help you find the right variation for you, but first…
Before you even start thinking about picking a variation to work on you should ask yourself, “Have I mastered these variations?” If the answer is no, don’t worry. These variations are going to get your technique stronger, your footwork cleaner, they allow you to find your musicality and phrasing, and have a better understanding of Classical Ballet. For the History of these variations, check out the digital: A Ballet Education’s Guide To Variations.
The first variation is all about the presentation of the foot and the control of turnout. Honestly, this shouldn’t be called candide or the Fairy of the Crystal Fountain. It should be called present your heel from your inner thigh. What is nice about this variation is that it teaches pique arabesque and attitude with both a pas de cheval and a brush, and it also teaches fouetté en dedans from arabesque to effacé and plié relevé arabesque.
Heloise Bourdon of the Paris Opera Ballet in Rudolph Nureyev’s Production of the Sleeping Beauty.
In the first diagonal moving downstage right, make sure you keep all of your croisé lines crossed and turned out. Sometimes we are so focused on the height of the leg, that the actual body line and position become a little sloppy. Keep the heel presented at all times. e.Remember: In croisé devant, you want to see that heel coming over the top of the line. Keep the port de bras moving and relaxed, let the arms float with the music, but make sure the end in a position on the count. Showing a clean line on the count is essential. End the pass with a juicy plié that resists the floor. Don’t just plop down.
In the second pass of the variation moving across the stage, make sure you get the heel as far forward as possible when presenting the foot from the inner thigh. Make sure to keep the thighs tightly crossed in bourrés with BOTH heels forward. Hold that rotation!
In the next phrase of variation, the focus is going en dedans but maintaining the turnout. As each staging is different, I am just going to reference the video above. Notice that from arabesque the heel has to come forward as the knee stays behind, the inner thigh rotates forward through passé into the next step. The port de bras are lovely, but the hand should not be stroking or brushing the arm. It should be extremely delicate with beautifully shaped fingers like you are petting a baby, or wearing expensive jewelry.
In the final pass of the variation, death comes at you with full force. Moving from effacé to effacé while rolling up and down on pointe and as the leg/hip rotation fouettés en dedans… girl bye. The hardest part about that step isn’t even the pointe work, well the pointe work is extremely hard but can be made easier by making sure the entire weight of the upper body is in front of the hips and leg so that the fouetté can come easily, and the femur head can relax into the hip socket. Note how forward the inner thigh has to wrap, and then wrap back even more as you tombé.
Finally, when ending, make sure the heels are completely forward showing the understanding of the footwork, understanding of the turnout, and understanding of the delicate musicality.
If the first variation taught us the quality of delicate, the second variation, the Carelessness Fairy, or the Fairy of Flowing Wheat. teaches us how to move with precision and vigor. It teach us us pique passé, a very large and powerful jeté, attitude front, how to move backwards and forwards, and the start of turns.
Yulia Kasenkova in Sergei Vikharev’s production of the Sleeping Beauty for Mariinsky.
Sometimes this variation has two women dancing (Paris Opera), but most of the time it is done as a solo variation. I think one of the hardest things in this variation is to maintain the turnout and rib placement while move this fast. I think because of the transitions and because of the bending of the upper body, most young dancers have a tendency to splay the ribs to get a better attitude devant line.
The opening jeté, the heels must stay forward. The supporting leg, or the leg that pushes off, has to be fully turned out. Make sure as you brush the working leg, the leg is slightly in front of your hips. Finally, you have to hold the second position in the air for a brief second. Travel big!
In the next pass of the variation make sure you accent the rond de jambe en l’air out, and keep the supporting leg as straight and scooped as possible. Next are the chassés back. Make sure the foot is still slightly shaped to be aesthetically more pleasing. Keep the weight forward and on more on the front foot so that the back foot can shape better.
In the final pass, you have to quickly do step-overs, or lame ducks. Luckily they are only half turns! The hard part is getting the turnout on both legs to fire quickly simultaneously. Remember, to keep pressing the turnout from the hips as your turn and step. Make sure each step the heel is beautifully presented.
Oh, the Fairy of Scattered Breadcrumbs or the Fairy of the Woodland Glades.. the list goes on and on for this one. This is a good one. This variation teaches us how to pas de couru and travel, how to softly move through the steps, how to developpé arabesque and how to be generous with our artistry.
Royal Ballet’s Fumi Kaneko
Like walking delicately on glass through attitude devant, the first pass in this variation gives us a since of strength in the legs. Doing a plié en pointe without rolling or sickling is crucial. The musicality is so precise, and the legwork reflects the music while the port de bras reflects the calm smooth melody. Turnout! Turnout! Turnout! Don’t sit in your hips as you plié. Don’t be afraid to bend a little further than you actually think you should.
The next pass involves hopping backwards onto pointe. Again, the legs are very reflective of the individual notes while the arms really are generous and light.
This sets us up for the next section or pass involving two hops on pointe in attitude front, followed by a third sustaining the balance on pointe while doing a developpé arabesque. It isn’t easy at all. The pointe work has to be very obvious in the difference of slightly ginched foot and a fully pointed foot on pointe when balanced. This is a mature and subtle difference in a dancer’s ability to articulate the foot on pointe in different positions.
After this painstakingly long process the most quick and fluttering pas de couru happen. Again the genius of Tchiakovsky and Petipa shine: as the feet move rapidly with the notes and the upper body stays calm and the articulation of the port de bras is effortless.Then guess what happens. You repeat the previous section to the other side! Again, turnout is everything, and as the variation comes to an end, you don’t want to show you are tired, or that your feet are cramping. There are different ways to end this variation, in the video above she ends in a very nicely crossed attitude front en face. Personally, I don’t think that is flattering for most dancers so I would go croisé slightly. Actually, when I stage this variation I have the dancer end in arabesque and try to balance for a good two counts after the music has ended.
Sometimes I feel like we overlook this variation. I actually think it is rather difficult as one must run and travel on pointe. Not to mention that the hand work is incredibly difficult. It is really easy to look like a crazy spazz of a mess while performing this variation. Angelica Generosa ferociously performed this variation this season for Pacific Northwest Ballet‘s production. And truthfully it is probably the best I have ever seen it done.
The fairy of song or voice, or whatever you want to call it. Mostly it is nicknamed Canary Fairy. I think this variation really tests your turnout and whether or not you have mastered it. First off running on pointe is never easy, yet alone to be turned out and to travel the entire stage. The posture of the run is really important, as you have to be extremely pulled up and slightly inclined. The hands and fingers move ridiculously fast as if you were playing an instrument and all of the notes are flooding from your hands.
When running on pointe in the first diagonal, a lot of young dancers forget to hold the turnout. Remember each run is either in effacé or croisé so the full presentation of the heel must happen. At the end of the running diagonal you have double rond de jambe, in which the accent is out. So if you are ferocious, you would stop and hold the accent out for a split count.
In the bourrées back make sure the foot is fully pointed and shaped in each coupé.The next step varies by staging, but in the version below her couru en avant travel turned out opposed to towards the end when going moving en arriere it is executed in sixth position on pointe.
If this first of the Fairy Variations taught us poise and speed, then Fairy 5, most commonly known as the Finger Fairy, teaches us style and power. This variation, because of the length and musicality has a very wide range of stagings. While some end the variation sauté basque, others will end the variation with step over turns, and others will add multiple pique turns. Some have a difficult jeté from a chaîné, while other variations have very fast pas de bourrée. Whatever staging you use, there are some signature style points to note below.
Sabrina Mellum of the Paris Opera in the very classical staging version of the variation.
Milena Sidorova from Dutch National (Het) in a more stylized version of the variation.
While the other variations enter with an ease and elegance, this variation opens with power and style. Whether you do the opening with runs or the most turned out emboîtés of your life, this variation must be executive with a ridiculous amount of energy. From the tension in the arms to the directness and literal energy to the end of the fingertips. The musicality is n the opening steps is very direct, there is not a lot of room for interpretation. It is what it is. It is precise, cutting and most of all exact. Crossing the attitude front is super important as it creates a better line on most dancers.
The next section you either run on pointe or pas de chat en pointe, either way, you need to get your butt into the air and travel like a crazy person. The sous-sus traveling back should equally scoop, and equally hold the turnout.The next section varies on staging, I personally like the turns into the grand jeté, most because I don’t like doing the turning hops en pointe. I personally think it looks clumsy, and less grand. This is the part in the variation most people start to die. The next section is a small developpé at 45°. Make sure that both heels are spiraling forward and presenting the most beautiful turnout.
Finally, in the last section each dancer or choreographer will choose between jumps or turns. Depending on what suits you best, I am indifferent to what a dancer might choose. Personally, I think the sauté basque is always stunning, as I think the step gets a reputation to be a masculine step. I also just think it is more impressive than a stepover, and I think the quick piqués look wild and crazy.
With the exception of Nureyev’s version, most every other version refers to this illustrious musical composition as the music for the Lilac Fairy. She is queen of the fairies and probably the most sought after role after Aurora. Usually assigned to a principal dancer, this variation sets up every ballerina to become a principal dancer.
Maria Iliushkina premiered as the LIlac Fairy this past season for Mariinsky. She is another up and coming star at the former Kirov.
Sanguen Leea principal at Dresden SemperOper in Aaron S. Watkin’s version of the sleeping beauty.
Here is why Lilac Fairy sets you up to become a dancer. The music is so dance able that the interpretation of the music and the steps is unique to each dancer. Additionally, this role demands a lot of acting is is seen in all three acts. From the way the dancer must walk onto the stage and even bow, you have to command a certain sense of presence and authority, while maintaining the ethereal qualities of a fairy.
In the opening of the variation, be generous with the head and preparation. It is the only fairy that has that principal start. Most of the previous variations do not have preparation music, and if they do, they prepare towards and facing baby Aurora and not the audience. The first pass of the variation includes some crazy developpé and en dedan ronds. By now you should have mastered the turnout from back to front, especially if you drilled that first fairy variation. In the contretemps make sure your heels are forward and you are turned out from your thighs. Present the foot with fully stretched leg and reach into a massively placed arabesque, don’t whack it.
In the second pass you have piques traveling back in attitude, arabesque and turning. The control of the turnout is crucial, the placement of the hips over the foot is crucial, and the upper body placed in an place that anticipates the actual position you are wanting is crucial. The fluidity comes from the strength behind a dancer’s technique. The grace comes from the musicality, and the comfort and control comes from the port de bras.
The next pass is quite short that involves musicality and port de bras traveling to stage left.
The next pass teaches us how to do sissone fermé with arms in first arabesque and allongé and pirouettes from fifth position. Don’t double prep your jump, keep the heels firmly pressed into the floor. This way as you come off the floor the heel is present fully in the air. Catch the landing and control the heels slowly to the floor. Don’t just plop down. Some dancers will make the jump massive, while others will make it small and quick depending on the tempo. Again, the phrasing of the music is really up to the director, or the dancer. Personally, as much as I care about the jump and the turn, I most care about the port de bras. The pirouette…. For all of you comp dancers out there: STOP WINDING UP YOUR PIROUETTE FROM FIFTH!!! I can not stress this enough. It drives me crazy in general. If you are doing pirouettes from fifth you don’t need to wind up, and frankly if you aren’t doing more than three pirouettes you don’t need to open the working side’s arm. Pirouettes shouldn’t look like effort. They should float on top of the supporting leg, and be so lifted that your upper body looks detached from your hips. They should be full of air and whimsy. They shouldn’t look like you are are winding up a pitch for the world series. Don’t turn in the supporting leg either. Actually… just look at my notes on pirouettes here.
Finally the variation ends with the presentation of attitude front, usually an assemblé or jump of choice, and an arabesque.
Thanks again for reading! I hope this helps you!