“As Germany has no real tradition of classical ballet”, Kenneth MacMillan told Ian Woodward of The Guardian in 1969, “my policy when I first came out here was to show them what the real thing is all about, and then to do my own things as well.” On MacMillan’s own account, his time as the director of the ballet at the Deutsche Oper in West Berlin was tough going. “When I did my new Sleeping Beauty, the critics said I should have done my own choreography because I was a better choreographer than Petipa”. When MacMillan staged Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial there was barracking from a section of the audience, who seemed to object to the ballet on ideological grounds (it also may have been true that the Balanchine work was a challenge too far for the Deutsche Oper ballet of the day.)
Nonetheless, wrote John Percival, The Times critic, “The Sleeping Beauty is the work that shows how far MacMillan can lead them when the circumstances are right. With a company, many of whom had never before seen any of Petipa’s choreography, let alone danced it, the elaborate production was an insurance against any deficiency of performance. In the event, they need not have worried”
MacMillan worked from Petipa’s original, repatriating Aurora to her native Russia and to Barry Kay’s luxuriant setting of a Kremlinesque imperial palace. For Alexander Bland of The Observer this was “a world Fabergé might have dreamed up if he had had taste”. The time transition from the first act to the last is from the court of Catherine the Great to that of Alexander III; from the wigs and pannier skirts of the late eighteenth century to the bustled skirts and uniforms of the late nineteenth. For Horst Koegler of Dance and Dancers, it was as if Petipa and Tchaikovsky might have been guests at the royal wedding apotheosis. “The transformation scene when the whole stage revolves in a dark sea of lamps and fronds”, reported Alexander Bland.
Choreographically, the prologue and first act kept close to the Royal Ballet’s version. MacMillan made new dances for the hunting party; for Aurora (Lynn Seymour at the premiere) and her attendants in Act II; he restored the Jewel Fairies in the last act, expanded to a pas de sept; and there was a “Mazurka with Moiseyev-like formations for 30 dancers” at the end. The character divertissements were restricted to Siamese cats and the Bluebirds.
For Trevor Gee of The Times, Seymour’s Aurora was “distinguished more by appealing charm than assured grandeur”, but Vergie Derman’s Good Fairy (not Lilac Fairy in this production – lilac would have been at odds with Barry Kay’s palette) was “cool, capable and serene”, and Rudolf Holz a “handsome-looking but modestly talented Florimund.”
The Berlin dancers were, according to Gee, extended to the limit of their techniques and in some cases beyond it. Yet, a year later in November 1968, John Percival could report on how impressive the company’s dancing had become over twelve months (and only sixteen performances). “The six fairy solos in the prologue were well done. Falco Kapuste and Silvia Kesselheim were well above average in the Bluebird pas de deux and MacMillan’s Mazurka in the finale showed with what fire and pace the corps de ballet as a whole could dance.”
A dissenting voice was that of Horst Koegler, who had some sympathy with those Berlin critics who thought that MacMillan should have substituted his own choreography for Petipa’s. “Once MacMillan had decided to produce a Kremlin Sleeping Beauty, he should have switched over to a Bolshoi-style of choreography. If it can’t be St Petersburg champagne, then let it be Moscow burgundy. As it is, Petipa’s enchaînements look rather sombre and oppressed and altogether out of place in these very different surroundings and dressings.” Of Seymour, Koegler wrote that “her sensuous charm and warmness work on a different wavelength from Petipa’s diamond cut.”
Like John Percival, The Observer’s Alexander Bland saw some later performances in 1968, with two guest artists from Stuttgart, Marcia Haydeé and Richard Cragun.
MacMillan struggled constantly with the Deutsche Oper’s administration. Despite the house’s high budgets, ballet was opera’s poor relation. Ballet performances were scheduled erratically, which made it hard for the company to develop cohesion in its performances. There were union problems too. MacMillan complained that dancers were unwilling to do two performances a day, whenever he could persuade the Deutsche Oper to schedule them. “The ridiculous thing”, he told The Guardian, “is that the dancers only do three performances a month at most.” His Sleeping Beauty did not strongly engage Berliners. Now, MacMillan said, he understood their tastes. “Give your ballets a strong dramatic and erotic quality, and you can’t go wrong.”