Profile of a Great Ballet: La Sonnambula Update.

Posted by on 01.25.2010

I originally published this post on August 2nd, 2010, when we began work on Program II’s opening ballet, La Sonnambula.  As we have been working more on this ballet to prepare it for the stage, I felt like I wanted to update this post with some new information that I have recently come across.

New York City Ballet premiered La Sonnambula in 1946, under the title, “Night Shadow.” The score, composed by Vittorio Rieti, encompasses themes from the “La Sonnambula” Opera, from which, one can imagine Balanchine drew inspiration.  The choreography reflects the classical and dramatic music.
The ballet opens on a elegant masked ball being thrown by a Baron, also known as “The Host”. “The Poet”, an uninvited guest, spends much of the evening focusing his attention on the Host’s mistress, “The Coquette”, as the corps couples flirtatiously dance amongst one another. After the Poet enters, three divertissements perform as entertainment for the guests at the party.  The Host becomes jealous of the Poet’s interest in the Coquette and violently pulls her away from him as the corps de ballet exits the stage, presumably filing into the dining room for dinner.  The Poet is quickly distracted by an elusive woman who has just entered the stage, “The Sleepwalker”. This woman wanders around the Baron’s mansion like a ghost, entranced, with her hair down and a lit candle in hand. The Poet begins to dance with the Sleepwalker and attempts to wake her, but to no avail.
So, there always has to be drama right? So cue drama. The Coquette, jealous of the Poet’s interest in the Sleepwalker, informs the Host of the Poet’s flirtations throughout the evening. The Host is furious and stabs the Poet. The Sleepwalker returns to retrieve the Poet’s body. Yet again, we have a fabulously dark Balanchine ballet.
Jennifer Kronenberg as “The Sleepwalker.”

I have recently been reading Allegra Kent’s book “Once A Dancer“.  Ms. Kent was well known for her interpretation of the role of the Sleepwalker.  However, she did not originate this role.  In fact, she fell in love with the ballet long before Balanchine would revive it for her in 1959.  She saw the Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo perform Night Shadow in 1948 at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Hall.  The performance also consisted of Gaite Parisienne, Swan Lake, and Scheherazade, none of which caught her interest quite like Night Shadow.  The element of the ballet that intrigued her the most was the Sleepwalker’s exit: the woman carries the  Poet off stage, walking slowly backward into the wing.  This ending stunned her.  She would always remember that moment.

Eleven years later, for New York City Ballet’s 1959 Winter Season, Balanchine revived this ballet, now entitled La Sonnambula.  She describes her character, the sleepwalker, as a woman “who has a secret never explained.”  The sleepwalker is not allowed to live her life, as her husband keeps her hidden high in a tower above the stage.  But on this one evening, she descends to the masquerade ball; she has “escaped her imprisonment.” At the end of the Sleepwalker’s Pas De Deux with the Poet, he kisses her.  This is “Sleeping Beauty Balanchine style.” She is not awoken by this kiss, but their love for each other is apparent.  After the Poet is murdered, she mourns, yet does not awaken.  Ms. Kent talks of the ending when the Sleepwalker carries off the Poet’s body saying, “It was really not difficult, because his whole weight was on my back and shoulders as he wrapped himself around me in a fireman’s lift.”

She spent a lot of time analyzing the role in order to determine how she would make it her own.  She spent time at home listening to the music alone.  “In this role I had to develop a response during dialogue.  In this role I had to develop my next dramatic idea on the music exactly as the conductor was playing it that night.  My interpretation had to read across to the audience.”  Her last mention of La Sonnambula in her book is powerful; “In real life, I was a sleepwalker- dance my only light.”



  1. Can I buy as DVD of his Ballet

    • Unfortunately Balanchine ballets are never released in their full form on DVD. This is to protect the copyright of the choreography. For more information please visit


  2. Oh my goodness! Auto correct! How embarrassing, so glad you pointed it out! Thanks for the nice comments.

  3. Loved the piece, Rebecca. In another matters, is there a way for you to edit the first sentence in the fourth paragraph, from "Croquette" to "Coquette"…? Not that I have anything against those yummy items, but I don't think The Poet would be willing to display too much of an interest for such greasy business… 😉 Cheers and keep on your great blog…!

  4. I remember a couple of years ago getting a press seat for NYCB. The last two things on the program were Bugaku and Sonnambula, and Kent was in the seat next to me. Yikes! Apparently she'd coached Maria Kowroski in Bugaku; she didn't stick around for Sonnambula….

  5. I absolutely recommend it. It is so extraordinary to learn about what their lives were like working with Balanchine. Hers is so interesting!

    PBS airing is on hold right now. It was supposed to be happening this Spring, but we are hearing that they may be waiting until summer. However, we do know that it is all edited and ready to go. Edward Villella told us that he has a copy of it, and that he would like to do a viewing for us. We can't wait! We have just been to busy recently, but soon I am sure.

  6. Very interesting post Rebecca. Would you recommend Ms. Kent's book? On another note, have you heard anything about when the PBS performance is going to be aired?

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