• Zoe Phillips

Everything I love about The Sleeping Beauty's Rose Adage

Updated: Sep 11

It's a bouquet of balances!

Marianela Núñez in the Royal Ballet's "The Sleeping Beauty" (photo: ROH YouTube)

Please note: I linked all the video clips with their timestamps embedded, so every link will take you exactly the section I'm talking about. Please enjoy.

Last Monday, I finished a long day of meetings, classes, and study sessions and crawled into bed as the clock approached midnight. As my eyes closed, the light of my phone pierced through the darkness of my room with a notification. I glanced over at the device expecting to ignore it, but saw that the Royal Ballet had uploaded a full video of Marianela Núñez in the Rose Adage of The Sleeping Beauty.

For those of you getting ready to shame me for being on my phone late at night (I see you Mom), at least read this article first. I need you to understand the absolute magnificence that compelled me to click play.

Premiered in January of 1890, The Sleeping Beauty remains widely recognized as one of the most classical, most difficult, and most beautiful ballets still in existence today. Choreographed by Marius Petipa and set to music by Tchaikovsky, the work was commissioned by the tsar of Imperial Russia in the late 19th century (Augustyn & Tanaka, 61). We remember his regime for excessive corruption and general levels of evil, but with a resumé like The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and The Sleeping Beauty, at least it was a good place for ballet.

Petipa came from France to set the work under the exclusive agreement that he'd have absolutely no restrictions in his creative process. He choreographed the entire ballet with miniature figurines before Tchaikovsky was even allowed to start work on the score. When Petipa was done, he handed Tchaikovsky pages of notes involving the exact timing and mood he wanted for every scene. Tchaikovsky then had three months to turn Petipa's notes into musical ones (Augustyn & Tanaka, 68).

Both men's success still receives standing ovations today.

If The Sleeping Beauty is ballet's favorite tiara, the Rose Adage is its crown jewel. Early in Act I just after Aurura emerges from the wings, she embarks on a series of balances that exist in only the most elusive of skillsets.

In a metaphor, they're the Hail Mary to win the game. It's only six minutes out of a three hour show, but failure here renders the rest pointless.

So — as my clock ticked to 12:30 a.m. and my muscles melted into the mattress below me, I clicked play one the most iconic scene of classical ballet.

Let's twirl over it.

The Background

It's Aurora's 16th birthday, and she's presented with four suitors attempting to woo her hand in marriage. Like most classical ballet, the Rose Adage can be easily divided into obvious sections of repeated steps. Here, those sections grow in difficulty as the resplendent music bellows from the orchestra pit.

Barely 16, Aurora starts in a state of innocence. She's a woman who came of age behind the thick stone walls of a castle under the helicopter guardianship of parents who feared an evil fairy's curse. As much as this party acts as a marital matchmaker, it's also her first introduction to the kingdom. Think "For the First Time in Forever" from Frozen (oh my goodness gracious. is Disney's Princess Anna just a different version of Petipa's Princess Aurora? what a conspiracy).

The Adage

1. The music and dancing start simply. The Rose Adage's first section moves in a simple line across the front, and the music, though beautiful, is the most average section of the song. It's not too loud, too soft, or too detailed.

Moving from one suitor to the next, Aurora holds the hand of her partners and steps into a soutenu en tournant (a single spin on both toes) that melts into a développé à la seconde (a leg lift that extends out from the knee to the side).

Right before lowering her lifted leg, she lets go of the suitor's hand and floats on her own. It's simple, lighthearted, and sweet, but be forewarned: the front-and-center angle of the développé sets a high standard for technical excellence. There's no hiding from a popped hip or a wobbly balance.

In other words, it takes a true master to create that sweetness.

After the last balance, she finishes the sequence with a partnered pirouette. Notice the way Nela looks up and out into the far reaches of Covent Garden when she finishes that turn. Her smile comes from her entire upper body, and her joy is wholeheartedly that of a 16-year-old (back to my Frozen conspiracy).

2. Next, she moves into a set of attitude balances at center stage, supported one-by-one by each suitor. She tests her individual balance by bringing her arms to fifth every time she switches hands with the men. As she focuses on these steps — far harder than the last ones — her eyes drop to meet her partner's and her energy compresses into her standing leg. The music deepens in this section, too.

The fight for steadiness atop her pointe shoe is akin to her more invisible struggle with a quickly-disappearing childhood.

3. This change aside, she is still only 16 and her attention span must reflect that youth. From center stage, she moves into a set of bourrées and partnered piqué en arabesques (step into arabesque) shared between the four suitors.

When she's in arabesque with a man's hands at her waist, her energy remains contained within the edges of her tutu. Standing profile in such a classic pose, she's a picture of refined maturity. When the suitors let go, however, she bourrées (small running-like steps en pointe) in between them with innocent freedom.

Her eyes widen and her chest beams upward into her great big world. She's a girl dancing between two different worlds.

4. From here, Aurora moves upstage and completes a diagonal of piqué arabesques, this time un-partnered. She steps into position in front of each suitor as he kneels behind her and then rolls through her pointe shoe and dips into an arabesque penchée (an arabesque in which the upper body drops forward to allow the back leg to raise).

This is difficult. The mere act of rolling down from a pointe shoe (rather than smacking the whole foot down all at once) requires serious strength of the metatarsals, and holding it there with one leg still in the air is asking for a lot of ankle stability. From there, shifting the weight forward to move into that penchée requires even more ankle stability and a serious amount of core.

All while standing on one leg, the body must respond to a roller coaster of weight placement as the arms and hands continue their sense that everything is fine.

5. As the music adds splendor, the princess and her suitors complete a tableaux before moving to the next section. That moment of stillness gives time for the princess to refill her giddiness from earlier and when she's put down, she bourrées on the spot in an overflow of glee. Her arms and upper body drip in delicacy as she moves through her épaulement (shoulders) with joy. The quick bourrées under her tutu give the illusion of a simmering excitement, and her graceful upper body call upon her maturity.

Through this moment, she melds her childhood and adulthood into one identity.

6. The music celebrates this connection by quieting to only a few barely-audible notes. For a second, Aurora stands alone with only her movements and her suitors, each of whom presents her with a white rose — representative of purity. One by one, she collects them in her left hand after pirouetting. After she's compiled a bouquet, the princess hands the flowers to her mother. This action could be interpreted as another symbol of childhood, but I'll take the modern interpretation and say it's really a statement on the unending importance of mothers, no matter the child's age (hi, mom. I see you. I know you're reading this).

7. From the corner again, the princess then embarks on two sections that harken back to the développés to the side from the very beginning. First, she completes two springing développés, both partnered by a suitor, that end in a pirouette to attitude croissée derrière (bent leg extended in back). The added spring to the développés and the larger ending of the pirouette match the character development of the past four minutes.

As the music reaches its final culmination, Aurora finishes a new diagonal of développés, this time with a pirouette preparation and a new collection of roses. When she's done, she stands at downstage right lifting the bouquet into fifth position over her head.

Her chest heaves for air but also beams with exultation. Tchaikovsky's score, ever a treasure chest of emotion, is ready to blow its bolt off the top. The end is near.

8. Slowly, she runs to upstage left and eloquently tosses the roses into a pile. How does one eloquently toss roses, you ask? I'm honestly not sure, but I know that at 4:36 when Nela drops the roses, she's being eloquent. This is also strategic on her part because it's her last chance to breathe before the final Hail-Mary balances. She languishes in her last moments with two feet on the ground before stepping into center stage.

The (and I mean THE) balances

Aurora gets one chance to step into attitude. There are no redos, second chances, or referee reviews.

As she places her weight onto the tip of her pointe shoe, she must send enough of herself forward that the weight of her lifted back leg doesn't pull her backward while at the same time making sure that weight won't continue to push her over her shoe and send her toppling onto the suitor. It's a delicate counterbalance that dancers spend years practicing and teachers will often reference the Rose Adage as the reason for it. Watch Kathryn Morgan do exactly this when teaching her most recent online barre.

An attitude is also one of the hardest positions to hold correctly. Try sticking your leg out to the back and bend your knee. Now try to match the level of your knee to that of your foot. In other words, the knee and the foot must be on the same plane. At 5:01, look at how flat Nela's back leg is. That's a lot of really deep hip muscles that are firing at lightning speed.

While that happens, Nela also has to maintain a connection between her back toe and opposite shoulder. She treats the position as if there's a string between the two, holding her shoulder from falling forward. If she didn't, the counterbalance of her lifted leg would twist her upper body and destroy her ability to remain squarely atop her tiny pointe shoe.

So, she keeps all these things in check while her suitors spin her around like a music box? Shouldn't be that bad, right? It's actually quite hard to achieve music-box status. Promenades are difficult to partner. A human's hand is naturally unstable especially when being used as the only support of a flamingo-style balance en pointe (get it? because she's on one leg and dressed in pink!). Plus, Aurora is dealing with four different hands — each one diverse in micromovements, height, and steadiness.

In other words, if the suitors move their hand a half inch forward or a quarter inch backward, that's a larger space than the box upon which Nela is balancing. Exactness is of utmost importance.

When Aurora hits the final balance and stretches into a finishing arabesque, the smile on her face is almost certainly not acting. It's pure human accomplishment and pride.

You can see it in her eyes and hear it in the pounding applause of Covent Garden.

Her final turn acts as a victory lap, the music for which is often completely drowned out underneath the continuing applause.

Though this adage is technically a matchmaking scene the princess notably finishes her marathon independently. After proving her strength over and over again, she is not held or balanced or propped up against any one of the four men.

She stands alone at center stage, in the limelight of her rightfully earned attention.

If she's gotten this far, she's proven herself as one of the strongest ballerinas out there, fully deserving of my attention at 1am from the comfort of my bed and the light of my phone.

This article first appeared on Medium.com under the title "A Bouquet of Balances: The Sleeping Beauty’s Rose Adage" on Oct. 14 2019

Works Cited

Augustyn, Frank, and Shelley Tanaka. Footnotes: Dancing the World's Best-Loved Ballets. Millbrook Press, 2001.

Updated 2020. Many thanks to Emily Considine for the header art at the top of my page!