Unlike The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty did not feature prominently in the American ballet canon. It was essentially the preserve of visiting foreign companies; the Royal Ballet, The Kirov and the Bolshoi. Such performance tradition as did exist in the United States was that of American Ballet Theatre. It had previously staged an abbreviated version known as Princess Aurora and at one point had in its repertory a full-length staging by Mary Skeaping. This last used the designs created by Oliver Messel for the reopening of Covent Garden in 1946
Kenneth MacMillan’s is the first American Beauty of major importance. He based the production, which was overseen by Monica Parker, on the notation created by the Russian ballet master Nikolai Sergeyev, the source on which the Royal Ballet’s production is based. MacMillan’s own contributions were the Garland waltz, variations for Prince Desiré and Princess Aurora in Act II, the journey to the castle and the Awakening, and the Jewels divertissement.
In an interview with The New York Times ahead of the New York premiere, MacMillan explained how The Sleeping Beauty made him aware of ''the value of the pas de deux - how it can be the climax of an entire ballet. Petipa's choreography also taught me the importance of timing. For me, The Sleeping Beauty is more than a fairy tale. It's a tribute to a style of living. It celebrates fine manners and good breeding.'' Of his own largely traditional production, he said ''If choreography already exists for a scene, one should keep it. When there are missing pieces in the choreographic jigsaw puzzle, then, of course, they have to be filled in.''
The production budget was one million dollars and the sets designed by Nicholas Georgiadis were built in London. The ballet’s time span was located between the mid seventeenth and mid eighteenth centuries with Georgiadis’s costumes based on paintings by Van Dyke and Tiepolo a hundred years apart. ABT’s rehearsal process was riven with tension; Mikhail Baryshnikov, the company’s artistic director did not share MacMillan’s reverence for the traditional text and MacMillan found his work constantly interferered with by the Russian ballet mistress who was in charge of ABT’s classical repertoire.
Despite all this, the production was a success. For Robert Greskovic writing in Ballett International, MacMillan’s Beauty was “primed to advance ABT to a new plateau.” For David Vaughan in Ballet Review it was “a British production of a nineteenth century Russian ballet danced in twentieth century American style”; he applauded the company’s dancing, “which showed a great improvement” and this he credited to MacMillan. For Joan Acocella in Dance Magazine, it was a “grand and decorous staging ...stylistically consistent which created that atmosphere of sweet security in which the classical dream – that truth is simple, knowable and beautiful – could for three hours come true.”
MacMillan’s production remained in American Ballet Theatre’s repertory for eighteen years, before coming to English National Ballet in 2005.