Preview – The National Ballet of Canada & Rudolf Nureyev’s Sleeping Beauty – a special combination then and now.

Jillian Vanstone in <I>The Sleeping Beauty</I>.<br />© Sian Richards. (Click image for larger version)
Jillian Vanstone in The Sleeping Beauty.
© Sian Richards. (Click image for larger version)

The National Ballet of Canada present Rudolf Nureyev The Sleeping Beauty at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, from 8-18 March 2018. Full details


The National Ballet of Canada is bringing its legendary production of Rudolf Nureyev’s The Sleeping Beauty to Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in March. With lavish set designs, magnificent costumes, dazzling choreography and remarkable history, this is a Beauty like no other – the most spectacular classical production in the National Ballet’s repertory and a true jewel of a ballet.

“No sight is more beautiful, no sound more thrilling than Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty.” So proclaimed Rudolf Nureyev, a ballet icon and an extraordinary artist with a larger-than-life personality and ambition. No classical ballet is more important and dear to the National Ballet of Canada than the version of The Sleeping Beauty he mounted for the company more than 45 years ago.

When Nureyev landed in Toronto, in 1972, with his production of the 1890 Tchaikovsky/Marius Petipa masterpiece (originally created for La Scala in 1966), he was looking for a ballet company willing to realize his full vision of a classical ballet on an epic scale. It was a risky endeavor for the young Canadian company. The cost of the production proved sky-high; the czar-worthy designs by Nicholas Georgiadis nearly bankrupted the troupe. “Originally estimated at $250,000, the budget ran over by $100,000, the production saved only when the chairman of the board mortgage his house. No one in the company had ever seen extravagance like it,” wrote Julie Kavanagh in her biography of Nureyev. “But Rudolf insisted on his vision; and there was no compromise.”

Huge credit goes to the visionary Celia Franca, then artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, who weathered all the storms created by the production and its impetuous creator. Yet the risk was worth taking – this Sleeping Beauty proved a sound investment, bringing dividends beyond imagination. With this production, the company toured the world and firmly established itself on the international dance scene, performing to critical acclaim at major venues, including the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.

“No one understands better than Rudolf Nureyev the mystic, fairy-tale quality of the great ballet classics. His productions of such ballets as The Sleeping Beauty have a grand simplicity and coherence that enables their legends to leap to life,” raved dance critic Clive Barns in the New York Times. “The scenery and costumes by Nicholas Georgiadis are absolutely sumptuous – this is the best looking and most visually stylish production of the ballet to be seen anywhere.”

To achieve his vision of classical perfection, Nureyev inspired and galvanized the company, teaching the dancers everything he knew about classical technique, style and artistry. He boosted careers of a young generation of stars, including Frank Augustyn and Karen Kain, who, after an illustrious dancing career, became artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada in 2005.

“It was just serendipity that the National Ballet of Canada started the relationship with Nureyev in 1972 when the company was doing his Sleeping Beauty,” said Kain in her 2015 interview with DanceTabs.

“He loved ballet. He had his own ideas about dancing that were influenced not just by his original training in Russia but by everything that he learned when he worked in France and England. He was extremely hard-working, and he was obsessed with dancing. He had a tremendous amount of patience and time for other dancers who were as obsessed with dancing as he was,” Kain said of her time under Nureyev’s tutelage. “He had an incredible work ethic, and nothing was more important to him than ballet. We were all his disciples as young dancers, and there was no end to the generosity of spirit that he had about educating us as artists.”

The role of Aurora had a defining impact on the performing career of Kain, who danced it countless times in Canada and abroad, often partnered by Nureyev himself. Now, in her new role as the National Ballet’s artistic leader, she shares her knowledge and wisdom about this part with a new generation of ballerinas.

“It’s so much easier for me to learn this role, because I am learning it directly from Karen,” says Jurgita Dronina, one of the company’s Auroras in the upcoming Sleeping Beauty run.  “The way she shows every gesture, every port de bras and arabesque – I know that the ballet is still in her body. I can see that she danced it million times.”

Jurgita Dronina.© Karolina Kuras. (Click image for larger version)
Jurgita Dronina.
© Karolina Kuras. (Click image for larger version)

The Russian-born Dronina, who joined the National Ballet of Canada as principal dancer in 2015, is also a lead principal dancer with the English National Ballet and resident principal guest artist with Hong Kong Ballet. She is no stranger to the title role of The Sleeping Beauty, having danced the part before with Dutch National Ballet and with the ballet company at Teatro dell’Opera di Roma – Rome Opera Ballet.

When she describes the distinctive features of Nureyev’s production, Dronina mentions the ballet’s intricate and taxing choreography. “Every Beauty is different. This production is one of the most spectacular and one of the hardest to dance,” she says. “The style is so difficult and so detailed. The variations may look similar in each production of the ballet, but in this Beauty the transitions are different: more nuanced and complex.”

Her favorite moment of the ballet is the Rose Adagio, a famous promenade of Aurora during her birthday celebration, during which the young princess meets her potential fiancés.

Jurgita Dronina in rehearsal for The Sleeping Beauty.© Karolina Kuras. (Click image for larger version)
Jurgita Dronina in rehearsal for The Sleeping Beauty.
© Karolina Kuras. (Click image for larger version)

“I love the grandeur of it. I don’t approach this moment as a technical feat but as an integral part of the story. As Aurora, I look at every suitor as if to thank each of them for coming to my birthday party. I really enjoy this part of the ballet. In this scene, I have to balance on one leg for a long time. I try not to think about the difficulties of the choreography and concentrate on the storyline, so it goes pretty well. And the music in the Rose Adagio is so beautiful! It starts very quietly and then elevates into this majestic crescendo.”

She also acknowledges the importance of this ballet for the company. “Nureyev himself danced here. When I watch the videos of the past performances, I see how well everything is preserved. This ballet is very special to all of us.”

While for Dronina this will be her company debut as Aurora, principal ballerina Jillian Vanstone has been dancing the title role for nearly a decade.

A native of Nanaimo, British Columbia, Vanstone trained at Canada’s National Ballet School, joined the company in 1999, and was promoted to principal dancer in 2011.

National Ballet of Canada in Rudolf Nureyev's The Sleeping Beauty.© Aleksandar Antonijevic. (Click image for larger version)
National Ballet of Canada in Rudolf Nureyev’s The Sleeping Beauty.
© Aleksandar Antonijevic. (Click image for larger version)

When she talks about her heroine, Vanstone underscores Aurora’s strong personality and charisma. “She has a lot of spunk and presence – she is definitely not a shy and demure girl like in most productions of Sleeping Beauty. She is a powerful character; and I really enjoy this particular aspect of this production. Of course, Aurora is regal and refined because she is a princess, but she also has a lot of energy, fire and confidence.”

“I enjoy dancing this ballet in general – it is my favorite classical ballet to perform. But I absolutely love the whole second act: the music, the lighting, the mood,” says the ballerina when she describes her favorite moment in this Sleeping Beauty. “I love the feeling of romance, when the Prince envisions a sleeping princess and is encouraged to go on a journey to find Aurora and wake her up from her sleep. They dance together in a very adagio kind of way and they are falling in love. But Aurora is just a vision, so the entire moment has a special dream-like feel to it.”

Jillian Vanstone backstage at The Sleeping Beauty.© Karolina Kuras. (Click image for larger version)
Jillian Vanstone backstage at The Sleeping Beauty.
© Karolina Kuras. (Click image for larger version)

“When it was first introduced, this production took the National Ballet of Canada around the world, putting the company on the map. We still have character artists in our company who went on all these original tours around Europe, Asia and the United States, when Rudolf Nureyev took the company everywhere. I think, just for this reason, it’s a very important production,” says Vanstone, underlining the works significance to the company.

“And, on a personal level, it’s very special for me to be dancing the role that is so integral to the company that I love. You look at the costumes and you see the names of ballerinas who had danced the role of Aurora before you and it just feels historic. It’s really exciting to think how long this production has been in the repertory and how many people have done it.”

Vanstone concludes by wrapping it all up in short order: “It’s such a beautiful production! It doesn’t feel dated or aged. This Sleeping Beauty looks as if it could have been made very recently and yet it still carries all this history… and all this weight.”

About the author

Oksana Khadarina

Oksana Khadarina is a Washington, DC–based dance writer and a long-time contributor to DanceTabs. She has been covering dance at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, as well as in New York City and internationally, since 2006. She has written for Dance Magazine, Pointe and Fjord Review, among other publications.

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