Friday, April 8, 2022

A Rejuvenated Sleeping Beauty at the National Ballet of Canada

Harrison James and Heather Ogden with artists of the National Ballet of Canada in The Sleeping Beauty. (Photo: Teresa Wood)

As a harbinger of spring, the National Ballet of Canada’s recent presentation of The Sleeping Beauty was an especially happy occasion. The first lavishly designed full-length ballet to open on the Four Seasons Centre stage since the March 2020 lockdowns, it burst on the eye like a garden of suddenly blooming flowers. Oh the sumptuousness of it all. And how sorely such choreographed extravagance, the ultimate in escapism, has been missed during the bleak days of the pandemic.

A work of high classicism set to a melodious symphonic score by Piotr Tchaikovsky, The Sleeping Beauty was choreographed by Rudolf Nureyev, after Marius Petipa’s 1890 original, in 1972, the same year it entered the National’s repertoire. It’s a signature production which the company has performed frequently over the years, the last occasion being in 2018. But after a nearly four-year absence, the 50-year-old ballet looked reborn when it opened in Toronto on March 19 for a week-long run. The dancing sparkled as much as Nicholas Georgiadis’s luxuriously iridescent costumes, 360 of them in total, making the entire performance feel like a true reawakening. There were several stand outs: Naoya Ebe and Tina Pereira dancing the Bluebird and Princess Florine pas de deux, Rebekah Rimsay in the mimed role of wicked fairy Carabosse, and Miyoko Koyasu and Spencer Hack as the Pussycats in Act III’s celebratory wedding party scenes.

Rising artistically above them, principal dancer Heather Ogden commanded the role of Aurora, the central character whose name means dawn, a new beginning. Wearing a diamantine tiara and high-cut tutu made for fleet and spacious dancing, Ogden gave the illusion of guileless spontaneity while displaying technical mastery of the series of unsupported single-leg balances, the focal point of Act I’s challenging Rose Adagio section. She made the difficult look easy. Her robust portrayal of the 16-year old Princess downplayed girlishness. Absent was the coltish energy other ballerinas typically bring to the role. Ogden’s Aurora was not a coquette but a queen in the making: confident, poised, and wise beyond her years. To get her to the next level on her development she needed a partner who could match her impressive abilities. Enter Harrison James.

As Prince Florimund, he brought emotional eloquence to Act II’s technically challenging hunt scene and a clean, unforced style to the same act’s vision scene where, abetted by Tanya Howard’s shimmery Lilac Fairy, he espied an image of female perfection in the form of Aurora. Seeking an ideal, he poured on the passion while remaining pristine with his movements. In the Act III wedding grand pas de deux he was grace personified, emerging as Ogden’s equal in the beauty department.

He was also her dramatic counterpoint and the emotional centre of the entire ballet. James complemented Ogden’s precision and pounce with a dynamic performance of his own. But where she embodied modern female empowerment, he appeared more sensitively motivated and organized, a romantic throwback. His thoughts wandered inwards and his concerns involved the well-being of others. His Prince had a tender-hearted Wordsworthian dimension. He was in love with love but love as a spiritual pursuit. With this more nuanced approach, signifying the intellect behind the handsomeness of the body, James realized Nureyev’s goal of turning the prince in The Sleeping Beauty into a vehicle for expressive male dancing,

One of the greatest dancers of the 20th century, Nureyev choreographed the part for himself, customizing it to suit his oversized talent and personality. In earlier versions of the ballet, the Prince was a necessary plot device, a means to breaking a spell with a kiss. But not here. In Nureyev’s ballet, the Prince is a poet of the pirouette who leads the audience deep inside the mystery of resurrection at the ballet’s core. The steps he takes to get us there are as labyrinthine as the path to the castle where Aurora is trapped inside a hundred-year sleep. Rapidly beating feet and spinning top turns co-exist with sharply defined lines and sculptured poses, noble in their simplicity, in the same movement passage. It’s tricky stuff, a slow burn of a virtuoso performance, and James triumphed over it. A heartfelt actor and faultless technician, he brought a golden fairy tale gloriously back to life. 

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer on staff at The Globe and Mail newspaper from 1985 to 2017. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she is a two-time recipient (2020 and 2014) of Canada’s Nathan Cohen Prize for outstanding critical writing. In 2017, she joined York University as Editor of the award-winning The York University Magazine where she is also the publication’s principal writer.


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