Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Pulling Off a Miracle: The Sleeping Beauty at Toronto's Four Season Centre for the Performing Arts

The Sleeping Beauty (Photo by Sian Richards)

A ballet based on a fairy tale, The Sleeping Beauty celebrates the victory of order over chaos, a theme the National Ballet of Canada expressed with particular exuberance during the week of performances that opened at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on June 10. The company was down 18 dancers as a result of injuries, a number representing almost a quarter of its artistic staff, and so the necessity of transforming a situation of adversity into one of triumph wasn't just a fiction. It was a matter of artistic survival. The wounded ran the gamut from seasoned performer to newcomer: principal dancers and soloists right down to members of the corps de ballets. It is unusual for so many dancers to be sidelined at once, and in the days leading up to opening night the situation looked dire. The classical repertoire's most famous ballet is also its most opulent, typically requiring legions of dancers to do it justice. Rudolf Nureyev's lavish version, which the National Ballet has been dancing since 1972, is no exception. Only a large classical dance company – and with 66 dancers the National Ballet is the biggest in the land – can pull it off. So what do you do when suddenly your numbers are down? You panic. Or, if you are Karen Kain, you think on your feet and pull off a miracle.

Originally created for Teatro della Scala in Milan in 1966, Nureyev's production is based on Marius Petipa's original 1890 choreography which had been created for the Imperial Ballet whose patron was the Tsar of Russia. The inspiration behind both versions is Charles Perrault's 1697 children's story about a princess who is awakened from a hundred years' sleep by the kiss of a virgin prince. The court setting is not an accident. Petipa's ballet was conceived to celebrate the grandeur of the late Russian court; it is why everything about it was designed on a large scale. The setting  then as now – is palatial, evoking (especially the baroquely splendid third act) the absolute reign of Louis XIV which the Tsar had sought to emulate. The choreography is demonstrably regal, characterized by dramatic flourishes and feats of great strength, balance and poise. The human body emerges as a metaphor for the political body, beautiful and strong as a result of the tremendous discipline being imposed upon it.

But the Tsar was a liberal. He ruled over a constitutional monarchy, something which England had achieved, and was in the process of transferring land to the peasantry and emancipating serfs. His reforms heralded the beginning of a new era. Petipa commemorated this moment in Russian history by naming the heroine in The Sleeping Beauty Aurora, a word synonymous with dawn. Aurora means the light and in the ballet it is a force of good pitted against bad. Aurora and her luminous protector, the Lilac Fairy, also represent life; the wicked fairy Carabosse and her cretinous entourage are figures of darkness and destruction. It is Carabosse who decrees that Aurora will die on her 16th birthday; it is the Lilac fairy who saves her by turning death into a prolonged sleep that is restorative in the extreme. When Aurora awakens, 100 years later, the kingdom is alive once more with beauty and ideas; the Age of Enlightenment has lent everything a new and glorious sheen.

It’s a grandiose idea, and when creating his monumental work Petipa commissioned Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to work closely with him in maximizing the scale. The Sleeping Beauty marks the second of three ballets Tchaikovsky composed before dying prematurely in 1893, and it endures as a flawless synthesis of music and movement. Tchaikovsky's glittering score perfectly mirrors the sharply cut facets of Petipa's jewel-like choreography. A masterpiece from the start, it has gone on to inspire countless other dance artists to emulate its fusion of art, design and original music. Among them was Sergei Diaghilev whose Ballets Russes dance company of 1909 was founded on the principle of gesamtkunswerk, or total art cohesiveness, which The Sleeping Beauty symbolized.

"The ballet of ballets," is how Nureyev knew The Sleeping Beauty. His ballet teacher was from the Kirov who had been trained by dancers who had performed in the Petipa original. When Nureyev eventually made his own version of the classic after defecting to the West in 1960 he preserved Petipa's expressive and stylized pantomime but expanded the number of solos and variations for the principal male dancer. He commissioned Nicholas Georgiadis to create lavish sets for the ballet along with bejeweled and feathered costumes. When he took The Sleeping Beauty to the National Ballet of Canada in 1972, Nureyev exhorted the company's dancers to dance big and bold so as not to be swallowed up by the scenery. Dancing the role of Prince Florimund in Toronto, Nureyev performed alongside a number of the National Ballet's leading ballerinas, among them Veronica Tennant, Vanessa Harwood, Mary Jago and Nadia Potts. Later, Nureyev later invited a young Karen Kain to partner him when The Sleeping Beauty toured New York, an event that marked the Canadian company’s Metropolitan Opera House in 1973. Their partnership helped to launch Kain's international career. Not surprisingly, The Sleeping Beauty is special to her. After retiring from dancing, in 2004, a year before she became artistic director, Kain remounted his version of the ballet which she presented in Toronto as a tribute to her former mentor who had died in Paris in 1993. Kain refurbished Georgiadis' original costumes and lavished attention on the spacing of the corps de ballets to draw out "the sculptural symmetry of Nureyev's original conception," according to company historian James Neufeld.

The Lilac Fairy and the slighted wicked fairy Carabosse locking wands in the battle between good and evil.
(Photo: Corbin Smith)

Kain knows The Sleeping Beauty inside out. So when recently faced with diminished numbers of dancers it must not have been easy for her to consider presenting a production that would be less than how Nureyev had envisioned it. But what choice did she have? The season had been planned a year in advance; tickets had been sold and rehearsals were already well under way when the dancers started dropping like flies. In the true sense of the word, the show had to go on, and on it went, modified but in the end looking no less majestic from the effort. Actually, the ballet looked better than it has in years. There were fewer dancers on hand to recreate the symmetries in the choreography but that isn't to say the formal lines and patterns were weakened. On the contrary, by allowing usually thick ensemble dances to be performed by smaller groups of performers Kain heightened the inherent brilliance of the formal patterning. It was as if she had taken scissors and carefully cut away the fabric of the choreography to allow more light to shine through. The resulting ballet looked airier, more like fine lace than heavy brocade. The choreography had more room in which to breathe. True to the theme of The Sleeping Beauty, this was a work reborn. Less definitely being more.

Fewer dancers also meant that those still capable of performing were marshalled into dancing several roles – as many as five – on the same night. They included the inexhaustible soloists Chelsy Meiss, Jordana Daumec, Alexandra MacDonald, Tanya Howard and the terrifically buoyant Keiichi Hirano who has since retired from the company. Others found themselves thrust suddenly into the spotlight to dance leading roles for the first time. Several stars were born during this recent run of performances. Kain took a difficult situation and turned into a bonanza of fresh new talent, which was hugely exciting from an audience perspective. Overnight, normally unsung dancers from the lower ranks became much talked about sensations. They included Harrison James and Francesco Gabriele Frola, corps dancer who leapfrogged into the lead male role of Prince Florimund on different nights. James danced opposite senior company member Greta Hodgkinson on opening night, while Frola was partnered with ex Bolshoi star, Svetlana Lunkina at a later performance. James, a native of New Zealand, distinguished himself with solo dancing tinged with melancholic beauty. Frola took a flashier approach, ripping through the choreography with gusto. He knew the steps but often looked to blur the definition of their form to allow for a surge of genuine feeling to dominate the expression. His performance felt slightly anarchic as a result, making it exciting to watch.

But while emotionally intense, Frola seemed to tire easily. His explosive bursts of physical power often left him panting from the exertion. It was the only sign that the corps dancer member still needs to gain more stage experience before he can advance further up the chain of command. More consistently assured Piotr Stanczyk, a senior principal dancer whose javelin-like arabesques and fast-speed turns never once betrayed the strain. A confident dancer with a clean technique and attentive partnering skills, Stanczyk imbued lent the role Prince Florimund with velvety sensuality. His Act 2 solos were more luscious than lonely. His Aurora couldn’t help but fall in love. On this occasion, she was danced by fellow principal dancer Sonia Rodriguez, this season celebrating 25 years with the National Ballet. She certainly is getting better with age. Rodriguez breezed through the difficult Rose Adagio with high extensions and a rock-solid sense of balance that made the suitors lending her a hand practically superfluous. Lunkina, the Bolshoi ballerina who officially joined the National Ballet at the beginning of the season, was similarly strong and assured in the role. Her performance stood out by being especially animated, acted as much as danced. Lunkina danced with her eyes as well as with her head, arms, torso and amazingly articulate feet. Her limpid porte de bras and √©paulement, or harmonious use of the upper body, went a long way in making her Aurora a potent expression of artistic independence. It was the ultimate triumph.

– Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large

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