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In the repertory, no rest for 'Sleeping Beauty'

Most people think of ''The Sleeping Beauty" as a romantic fairy tale, with its lilting Tchaikovsky score and plot centered on a beautiful princess coming of age. But it's also one of a long line of propaganda ballets, a genre that goes all the way back to Louis XIV, called ''The Sun King" because of his frequent performances in 17th-century court ballets in the role of Apollo. Assuming the part gave him an allegorical link to a god.

Two centuries later, ''Beauty" was created to link Russia's Czar Alexander III with Louis, who was still the model of autocratic rule, and to reinforce the authority and continuity of the Romanoff dynasty. In the ballet, these weighty messages are conveyed by the character of Aurora -- usually played by a ballerina weighing in at about 100 pounds -- whose rebirth after her 100-year sleep symbolizes not only the arrival of spring but another generation of the dynasty assuming power.

A contemporary generation of dancers recreates ''Beauty" as Boston Ballet ends its season with performances of the classic this Thursday through May 15 at the Wang Theatre. Boston will field three Auroras: principal dancers Lorna Feijoo and Larissa Ponomarenko, who have danced the role before, and soloist Romi Beppu, who will be promoted to principal this autumn and is making her debut in the ''Beauty" lead.

While propaganda ballets can be clumsy -- China's ''The Red Detachment of Women," the apex of communist agitprop, comes to mind -- ''Beauty" is anything but. Thanks to Tchaikovsky's great score and Marius Petipa's choreography, the ballet was an instant success at its 1890 premiere and has never left the repertory.

After the Russian Revolution, the country's communist regime decided to capitalize on it rather than throw it out. A 1924 proposed revision ended with Aurora surrounded by red banners, personifying ''the beautiful dawn of Worldwide Revolution," as the libretto read.

A more moderate version ended up being staged in Russia, but ''Beauty" continued to make political history. In London, Margot Fonteyn danced it during the Blitz. ''Beauty" -- and Fonteyn -- reopened the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden after World War II was over, and ''Beauty" -- and Fonteyn again -- won the hearts of Americans at the British dancers' first performance in the Metropolitan Opera House a couple of years later.

A rivalry of sorts developed between the ''Beauty" of Britain's Royal Ballet, which was radiant but contained, and a postrevolutionary Russian one that grew ever more flamboyant. Some called the English ''Beauty" closer to the 1890 original than the splashy Soviet presentation.

Boston Ballet's production this time is British-based. Past Boston stagings have been more Russian-oriented. ''For me," says the Ukraine-born Ponomarenko, ''the English version feels more constricted." For her previous Boston shows, she had Russian coaches. ''They were fantastic" she says. Feijoo is happy with the current coaching team. And Beppu, making her debut in the ''Beauty" lead, wishes she'd had more coaching.

Their predecessors remember ''Beauty" as a rite of passage for themselves as well as for Aurora. The first-act ''Rose Adagio" involves a treacherous series of balances. Violette Verdy, the New York City Ballet star who directed Boston Ballet in the 1980s, wore extremely tapered pointe shoes in her first ''Rose Adagio" and ended up with her calf in a spasm. She was literally carried through the last act of the ballet by her partner. Erstwhile American Ballet Theatre star Cynthia Gregory, on the other hand, says ''Balancing is my favorite thing, so I wasn't nervous in the Rose Adagio."

For ballerinas like Gregory, the challenges of ''Beauty" aren't so much technical as interpretive. ''I worked to make Aurora a believable character," she says. For Verdy, influenced by Balanchine's musicality, ''the score, the way the violin expresses Aurora's moods, got me through the work."

''Stamina," Ponomarenko says, ''is the biggest challenge. The first act is a killer, with almost no rest between the first variation, the Rose Adagio, and the next variation. By the time you prick your finger, you're already dead."

''The Sleeping Beauty" runs Thursday through May 15 at the Wang Theatre. $18-$96; 800-447-7400, www.telecharge.com, or the Wang box office.

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