The National Ballet of Canada’s production of The Sleeping Beauty, with its sumptuous costumes and decorations, nuanced storytelling and inspired choreography, is undoubtedly one of the most visually stunning and dramatically meaningful Beauties you will ever find.
This Sleeping Beauty has long been the company’s source of pride and its calling card – a production that is inherently tied to the National Ballet’s history and artistic growth.
It was staged and produced for the Toronto-based troupe by Rudolf Nureyev in 1972. Nureyev – who at that time was considered one of the most celebrated male dancers in the world – transplanted on the then little-known National Ballet his grandiose staging of The Sleeping Beauty which he previously created for Milan’s illustrious Teatro alla Scala. Having the opportunity to be coached and to perform alongside the Russian ballet superstar was a fairy-tale moment and an artistic awakening of sorts for the company’s dancers.
No expense was spared to realize Nureyev’s ambitious vision of Beauty. This was the most expensive production in the history of the Canadian company; its extravagant costumes and lavish décor, created by Nicholas Georgiadis, threatened at some point to bankrupt the troupe. Yet it was all worth it. With this production, the National Ballet of Canada toured the world, performing on multiple occasions at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, thus gaining prominence and firmly establishing its reputation on the international dance scene.
With his unwavering commitment and demand for perfection, Nureyev galvanized and unleashed the potential of the National Ballet’s young dancers. His most talented protégé and his frequent partner, Karen Kain, went on to become Canada’s first international ballet star.
Kain, who celebrates this season her 50th anniversary with the company, is the National Ballet’s current artistic director. (She will retire from her position in January 2021 and will be named Artistic Director Emeritus). She deserves a huge credit for keeping this production alive and in great shape. Under her guidance and sensitive coaching, the company’s dancers truly shine.
I saw and reviewed the Canadian Beauty two years ago, when the company performed it at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. And it was a real pleasure to revisit the production during the National Ballet’s recent sojourn at the Kennedy Center Opera House.
On opening night, Heather Ogden danced the title role of Aurora, a young princess, who succumbs to an evil curse and falls asleep only to be awakened 100 years later by a kiss from a dashing prince.
With her beautiful looks, innate artistry and solid technique, Ogden was a perfect fit for this technically demanding and highly theatrical role. The Canadian ballerina, who has been a principal since 2005, is well-known in Washington D.C. for her incisive interpretations of the leading roles in the works of George Balanchine – for many seasons, she was a star of the now defunct Suzanne Farrell Ballet. In the role of Aurora, Ogden demonstrated aplenty her excellent theatrical skills and her virtuosity as a classical dancer.
Her Aurora was vivacious and cheery during the first act’s birthday celebrations, skimming the stage with lovely leaps and turns and gliding from one exquisite balance to another while interacting with her would-be-suitors in the famous Rose Adagio. When she pricked her finger on a spindle hidden in a bouquet of flowers, her entire body suddenly collapsed, and she expired little by little, like a candle, moving onstage, as if in trance, with inexplicable horror and dread. And the entire court, including her parents, swooned with her, consumed and visibly devastated by her tragic predicament. I have never seen this moment realized as vividly and poignantly as in this staging of The Sleeping Beauty.
In Act II’s Vision Scene, Ogden’s dancing acquired tenderness and softness as she beckoned the Prince to come to her rescue. And she was radiance personified in the third act’s wedding festivities, her dancing finely etched and assured.
The Sleeping Beauty was originally conceived as a showcase of technical bravura for a ballerina in the title role; and traditionally, the role of the Prince was deemed to be secondary: he was to support and present Aurora in all her sparkling glory. Nureyev’s version, however, is decidedly different in this sense. He conceived his Beauty, first and foremost, as a star vehicle for himself, increasing prominence of the Prince and significantly augmenting his dancing part. Describing to what extent the Russian dancer changed the role of the Prince, Diane Solway wrote in her biography “Nureyev: His Life”: “In Petipa’s version, made for the aging Pavel Gerdt, Florimund scarcely dances; in Nureyev’s grand staging, he scarcely stops, dominating the second act with several solos.”
On opening night, Harrison James was a dream-come-true Prince – noble, charming, brave and entirely capable of conquering the multiple technical challenges of the role. In the hunting scene of Act II, in his long melancholic solo, James both dazzled and captivated. His dancing, full of fluid footwork interspersed with quick outbursts of sharp twists and turns, conveyed Florimund’s emotional turmoil and his restless spirit. James’s classical line as well as the elegance and precision of his movements were flawless.
In the Vision Scene, we witnessed his hero’s maturity and transformation from a lost soul to a true romantic hero, who, driven by the power of love, experienced a spiritual awakening all of his own. In Act III’s wedding celebration, he partnered Ogden with palpable devotion and gallantry; their grand pas de deux was rendered with admirable romantic appeal.
As Carabosse, Rebekah Rimsay delivered a colorful portrayal of the disgruntled wicked fairy, infusing her role with loads of glamour and flaming fury. Tanya Howard was an enchanting and resolute Lilac Fairy, who, with her determination and poise, alleviated the deadly curse and restored peace and order in the Kingdom; and Jonathan Renna and Sophie Letendre played King Florestan and the Queen with stately aplomb while also revealing the compassionate side of the Royal couple.
From the assortment of fairies, Emma Hawes (Principal Fairy) and Chelsy Meiss (Fifth Variation) deserved a special mention; and the pliant and springy Naoya Ebe sparkled as the high-flying Bluebird together with the vibrant Elena Lobsanova as Princess Florine.
It was a memorable performance on every level; and the Opera House orchestra led by David Briskin didn’t disappoint, delivering the famous Tchaikovsky’s score with brilliant sound and rich texture.