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Evolution of a Fairy Tale

Richmond Ballet stages the ambitious "Sleeping Beauty."


Unfortunately for contemporary ballet companies, lavish spectacles backed by the resources of an imperial court are hard to come by. Richmond Ballet, in the absence of a czar, has fulfilled a long-held dream of staging "Beauty" by using gorgeous sets and costumes originally created for Louisville Ballet and by putting Burn in charge of creating a classical production of manageable length, with some original touches.

Burn's first performing gig, with London Festival Ballet, included 132 performances of a touring production of "Sleeping Beauty," he says, so the ballet is "indelibly etched" on his mind.

While staying true to much of the original Petipa choreography, Burn has shortened the ballet to two acts and has, in the spirit of productions staged by his former teacher Ben Stephenson, worked to "communicate in terms of recognizable actions," he says. Rather than simply placing abstracted portraits of fairy-tale characters within a grand spectacle, Burn has worked to evoke "normal people" through naturalistic gestures, hoping to give his audience characters with whom they can identify.

Mothers and fathers, for example, will empathize during the opening scene as the King and Queen — two new, nervous parents — rock their baby (Princess Aurore) to sleep. "I'm hoping we get a little humor," Burn says. This from a man who, because there was no other appropriate cast member, will be donning women's clothes to perform his own role in "Sleeping Beauty."

During lunch, Burn's office bustles: A dancer walks in and hands him a CD; company manager Jo Bachman stops in for a visit; and marketing associate Jordan Livermon hands him a sheet of photos of Burn spectacularly made up and dressed as Carabosse, the ballet's wicked fairy, commonly played by a man. Burn calmly looks over the photos in which he is almost unrecognizable: He sports a black lace gown and headdress, a jutting bosom, and slathers of stage makeup, all of which combine for an elegantly sinister effect. "My nose is too white," he remarks, and hands the photos back before taking another bite of his sandwich.

In Burn's production of "Sleeping Beauty," audiences will see everything they expect from the beloved story, he says. Any new elements?

"Mmm … yes," he says coyly. "We have to create some magic." And to that end he's included some technical theatrical elements not usually seen in classical ballet. Burn will not reveal more than a mention of "very unusual magic," although he expects the production to appeal to all ages.

He talks for a moment about why we go to the theater and how a viewer responds differently to, say, a ballet, a play or even a movie if it's viewed in the company of other people. "The ambience affects you and your reaction," he says, so that when surrounded by an audience that includes many children, even adults quite familiar with the "Sleeping Beauty" story will feel a new excitement as the work unfolds before them.

Speaking more about the alterations, deletions and mysterious additions he's made to this famous ballet, Burn says performing a ballet one way can become a habit. "It should change," he says. Over 116 years and endless productions, the idea of "The Sleeping Beauty" itself, he says, "has grown, I'm sure, into something completely different" from that original production in 1890. "All classics evolve. That's why they're classics." S

"The Sleeping Beauty" runs Feb. 17-19 at the Landmark Theater. Tickets are $20-$100. Call 262-8003 or go to

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