The Sleeping Beauty, jewel in the crown of the National Ballet of Canada’s classical repertoire, boasts more bravura dancing per square meter per minute than one could ever hope for in any other ballet. Not to mention enough brocade, velvet, feathers, ermine and sparkling jewels to furnish a Liberace concert.
Sumptuous visually, musically and balletically, the Tchaikovsky/Petipa grand ballet, first performed in the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1890, is the ultimate showcase for the highly accomplished classical ballet dancer. In 2006, artistic director Karen Kain restaged Rudolf Nureyev’s opulent 1972 production for the company with refurbished set and costumes; The Sleeping Beauty made the company’s spectacular entrance on to the stage of the newly opened Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. At the same time Kain upped the ante for the dancers, giving the audience a continuous round of high-octane, dazzling variations en pointe and en aire.
Yet drama is not sacrificed to athletic spectacle. Ivan Vsevolozhsky’s libretto provided Tchaikovsky with a poetic interpretation of the Charles Perrault fairy tale, inspiring the composer to create what he considered one of his best works, meticulously crafted and arranged to express in dance the powerful themes of the conquering power of love over hatred and envy, innocence and joy over corruption and power-mongering. (Vsevolozhsky also specified the ballet be set in the opulent – to the point of decadent — Versailles court of Louis the XIV.)
In 1890 Marius Petipa placed Princess Aurora at the centre of the ballet, to present the virtuosity of the Italian prima ballerina Carlotta Brianza. When Nureyev choreographed his production of The Sleeping Beauty, he created a more elaborate role for Prince Florimund, inserting himself as the melancholy prince prominently into Act II. But the central storyline remains that of Aurora, whose transformation from 16-year-old innocent full of joy, through ethereal, romantic ideal in the vision the Lilac Fairy presents to the prince, to mature womanhood constitutes the drama of the ballet.
Heather Ogden’s Aurora makes this fairy tale journey come true, in her spirited embodiment of a girl’s blossoming as if lit from within. She is sublime in the famous Rose Adagio, when the princess is presented to her four suitors (gallant Félix Paquet, Nan Wang, Peng-Fei Jiang and Ben Rudisin), balancing elegantly on the tip of one pointe shoe for the culminating moment, like Botticelli’s Venus Rising.
Guillaume Côté, once out of his velvet jacket and over-the-knee boots, which seem dated and too preening for the romantic hero Prince Florimund, arrives with such attack he seems to fly across the stage in his Act II solo. He and Ogden make a formidable pair in the grand pas de deux, the culmination of many fine set pieces —
including the diamond pas de cinq in Act III performed by Chelsy Meiss and Diamond Man Jack Bertinshaw — rising on rounds of applause in the balletic expression of a rebirth after a century’s journey into the darkness.
The performance of the Variations in Act I are no mere warm-up for the grand pas de deux to come. Hannah Fischer is particularly brilliant in the solo First Variation, but all six performances are stand-outs, highlighting the beauty and the symmetry that brings order amidst the chaos sown by Carabosse with her evil curse to eliminate Aurora and bring down the kingdom. Alejandra Perez-Gomez’s Carabosse is a deeply malevolent force, close to the ground and pagan, pitted against Taya Howard’s radiant Lilac Fairy who floats across the stage as she casts her spell to put the court to sleep for a hundred years.
Jonathan Renna brings a delightful curve of the calf to the dancing he’s afforded as King Florestan to Sophie Letendre’s Queen.
This production preserves the high-camp elements that, along with the pussycats in Act III bring an element of comic relief in the form of outlandish headgear, overly abundant male wigs and the over-the-top evil obsequy of Carabosse’s slimy attendants and the caricature witches, who preside over the birthday party like a black cloud. Such details are reminders of what happens in worldly realms when excess and inward-looking vanity leaves room for rot to set in. And they set off the grace and joy expressed in the many-splendored, stiffly tutued, flawless ensemble dances, such as that of the maids of honour and their pages, that take us through scene by scene in this thrilling feast of a ballet.
The Sleeping Beauty
Music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Produced by Rudolf Nureyev after Marius Petipa
Staged by Karen Kain and the artistic staff of the National Ballet of Canada
Set and costume design by Nicholas Georgiadis
At the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, through March 18
Photo of Heather Ogden and Guillaume Côté by Bruce Zinger.