Sunday, April 10, 2016

Beauty in a Box: Ballet Jörgen’s The Sleeping Beauty

Saniya Abilmajineva and the dancers of Ballet Jörgen in The Sleeping Beauty. (Photo: Lawrence Ho)

Watching Ballet Jörgen’s new production of The Sleeping Beauty in Toronto recently brought to mind IKEA, an association prompted by artistic director Bengt Jörgen’s Swedish heritage and the fact that his version of the mother of all classical ballets is compact and collapsible, much like a BJURSTA extendable table. Though inspired by Marius Petipa’s original 1890 choreography and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s majestic score (heard on tape), Jörgen has broken free of constraints imposed by tradition, slashing scenes (like the longer than long Prologue) and condensing the usual three acts into a quick paced two. But smaller doesn’t mean less. Camillia Koo’s spare but effective sets and costumes sparkle under Rebecca Picherack’s honeyed lighting design, and while there are just over 40 dancers (the 22-member ensemble augmented by 24 children and youth recruited from local dance schools), the impression is of an engagingly unified and committed ensemble performing with the vigour and professionalism of a full-sized company. At the centre of it all is a sparkling ballerina by the name of Saniya Abilmajineva whose brilliant command of technique and playful elegance made this version of The Sleeping Beauty something of a revelation.

Besides a surfeit of energy, the production represents a fresh take on a familiar story. Jörgen, a former National Ballet of Canada dancer who received his earliest training at Royal Swedish Ballet School in his native Stockholm, recasts the fairy tale of a princess put to sleep for a hundred years as a nature allegory where the forces of light and dark are correspondingly airy and terrestrial: The Sleeping Beauty meets Little Briar Rose by way of the Greek myth of Persephone. The wicked fairy Carabosse is here a demonic male character (Adrián Ramírez Juárez) with gnarled branches as hands; his counterpart, Lilac Fairy (Hannah Mae Cruddas), is more a sunlit garden where shadows sometimes fall. The atmosphere is alive with birds and flowers and wooden things going bump in the night. Jörgen appears in his own work playing the role of the King, with his real-life wife, Clea Iveson, playing his Queen. He mostly stands on the margins, allowing his dancers to take the spotlight. And while he has illuminated The Sleeping Beauty in novel ways that make the old girl seem new again, his other accomplishment, just as important, is having made a ballet which can travel in the back of a truck.

The Toronto-based Ballet Jörgen, this season celebrating 29 years, is a touring company committed to community engagement (“Builders of Dance Coast to Coast,” as it calls itself), and so creating a light and bright version of a heavy-duty ballet is part of Jörgen’s mission of taking classical dance to the masses. Since debuting last year in Burlington, Ont., his production has already logged thousands of kilometres travelling across the country, from British Columbia to Newfoundland. The movement continues. The three sold-out shows of The Sleeping Beauty that opened at Toronto’s Betty Oliphant Theatre on March 24 were followed a week later by a performance in London, Ont. Presently, the ballet is on an Eastern Canada tour with dates this week and next in Halifax, Saint John, Fredericton and Summerside, P.E.I. At the end of April, the company takes this Canadian production on the road to sunny Florida. Beauty, eh?

The dancers of Ballet Jörgen in The Sleeping Beauty. (Photo: Lawrence Ho)

Jörgen couldn’t do it without his hard-working dancers. They are flexible in more ways than one, appearing in individual as well as group dances and performing mime along with ballet in order to get the story across. The multinational ensemble works as a tight-knit team, one supporting the other, and if could be said to have a defining look it’s one stamped with youthful esprit. That effervescence is harnessed to discipline. Expertly trained by coach Svea Eklof, a former principal dancer with Alberta Ballet and The Royal Winnipeg Ballet who danced for George Balanchine in Geneva, the company’s ballerinas – and they include Annelie Liliemark who danced Blue Bird, Momoka Matsui who danced Humming Bird and Taylor Gill who danced Canary – replicate their seasoned teacher’s sharp and clean accents, sensitive musicality and defined sense of the dramatic using the tiniest of gestures – a flick of the eyelashes, an arch of the brow. Eklof also oversees the men, and they are powerhouses, executing airborne jumps and travelling turns with feverish intensity. Several are Cuban-trained and among them is Gustavo Hernandez who stunned with his buoyant delivery of the fiendishly difficult Blue Bird solo. Another standout was Daniel Da Silva, a native of Brazil. He danced the male lead of Prince Florimund with enough brio to make this usually pallid character look incandescent.

His ardour was easily explainable. In his arms lay Abilmajineva, an exquisite dancer whose petite frame belies a tremendous talent. Excellent is almost an insufficient word for her. A member of Ballet Jörgen since 2009, the Russian-schooled native of Uzbekistan effortlessly embodied the radiance and lustre of Aurora, dancing the principal role with a shimmering clarity that was thrilling to behold. The harmony of her arabesque, the exuberance of her pas de chat, the simplicity of her spiralling chaîné turns, the poise maintained while sustaining a balance on pointe during the Rose Adagio, everything about this gifted ballerina, recipient of a gold medal at the recent International Ballet Competition in Berlin, spelled perfection. She transported a modest production to the heavens.

 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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