There is a Tchaikovsky quote I like in which the great composer alludes to the idea that we would all go crazy if it wasn't for the music. However, when you are an injured dancer and commanded not to move for a while, the music's measure of time going forth can make you feel as if you are on pause. You remind yourself that this dimness is temporary but, nevertheless, there is the built-up tension of waiting for something to heal.
Recently, I have been trying to navigate my own labyrinth of injuries. This year has been the most physically afflicted of my ballet career both abroad and here at home in Canada. Though I hope to find my way over this hump as soon as possible, I will not be able to perform in the upcoming performances of The Sleeping Beauty at the National Ballet of Canada. Frustrating, but I can only smile at how ironic it is that this "ballet of ballets" happens to be all about disruption, acquiring the wisdom to overcome it and the darkness before the dawn of a new day (or new Act!). Within the beautiful athleticism of its dancing, this story, to me, is really all about patience before renewal. … It is no accident that the radiant princess Aurora has to "sleep" until an earthly gentleman (or Prince) struggles through emotional "blindness" in order to come in contact with her light. They can only come together over an important period of time, but when Earth eventually does meet light with a metaphorical kiss, suddenly one figurative season cycle is replaced with the budding new life of another. Prince Florimund's name refers to an introspective bloom that must find a way to be opened, and it's no accident that Aurora is named after the Roman goddess of sunrise that would turn such a bloom into a flower. Also, many of us in this hemisphere have witnessed the sun's highly charged particles colliding with gases of the Earth, creating the subsequent dancing Northern Lights – or aurora borealis.
I will spend this week of performances with the audience on the other side of the curtain and find new pleasure in watching the choreography and philosophical allegory of ballet's most popular hit. The show has been a success ever since its debut in 1890 and it also hints at the enlightenment of a new society of thinkers from the century before it was created. If the vertical attraction of Aurora's daybreak or dawn and Florimund's earthly yearning provide the axis for this story, then who turns it?
Spinning is actually a big part of this ballet and I catch myself finding new demonstrations of it every time it is performed: in the coiled, garden-like patterns of the corps de ballet, in the steps themselves, in the purpose of props (a spinning wheel is key to weaving the story of Aurora's life) and especially in Tchaikovsky's music (when Aurora pricks her finger on the spinning wheel's spindle, her spiralling solo is called danse-vertige, dizzy dance, and signifies the impending end of her adolescence). In the kingdom that Aurora is born into, the act of spinning is fearfully forbidden. But since this kingdom and its people would be stuck in time if it did not evolve, nature prevails and gives us two vital forces to turn it forward. The characters Carabosse (disruption) and the Lilac Fairy (order) are not human but are instead presented as magical fairies. All the fairies in the ballet represent different forces of the universe that cannot be seen with the eye the way Earth, dawn and sparks of light can. Carabosse is all about the uninvited hurdles of fate, whereas Lilac stands for the wisdom to create your own destiny. (A "bosse" is a hump in French, and in Russia the lilac is the flower of wisdom.) Listen for their easily identifiable musical motifs, which duel it out and eventually weave their way together, creating the compelling fabric of this piece onstage.
Backstage, The Sleeping Beauty also relies on the weaving together of old and new. The steps and concepts are handed down from one generation just as another reaches up, and the broad span of the world's stages that perform the piece interlace an important tapestry of culture. The National Ballet's production was staged in 1972 by the great dance star Rudolf Nureyev, who learned it from his dance ancestors in its birthplace of St. Petersburg. Karen Kain received it from him and is now (along with her team of artistic staff) responsible for its continuation forward. Just as the story is woven, so, too, are the very different but essential eras that make up the National Ballet. Experienced artists such as Sonia Rodriguez, Greta Hodgkinson, Rex Harrington and Peter Ottmann (among many notables onstage this week) tell personal stories about their generations and share important tips with the younger debuting dancers. It's opportune, as well, that some fresh princes who've never danced the incredibly athletic role before are paired with bona-fide ballerinas who've had valuable time to polish their potential. This captures the whole essence of The Sleeping Beauty for me. Without youthful energy and mature guidance, the thread between past and future would be cut short.
The ballet's addition of an entourage of fairies and other fairy-tale characters also serve metaphorical purposes, but I am admittedly guilty of just sitting back sometimes to enjoy the brilliance of their choreography. The mini-divertissements remind you that each part of the ballet is actually set at a different party – and some of the festivities feel like Coachella goes to Versailles. The sets and costumes of this particular version are so extravagant that Rihanna's lavish yellow cape from the recent Met Ball would not be out of place.
Perhaps Tchaikovsky is referring to finding order in chaos in his quote about music saving us from madness? For me, dance is one of the natural demonstrations of Dionysian chaos of emotional instinct and Apollonian order of rational logic – both positively and negatively charged, "down" and "up"; without these attracted forces there would be no spin or balance in life. No one is too old or too young to feel this, regardless of which thread they are in life's evolving tapestry. With an injury, the dance of life can become interrupted and we often have to patiently rest while we are out of a certain kind of order. But the underlying themes and energetic ceremonies of The Sleeping Beauty provide a renewed spark I always find awakening.
The Sleeping Beauty is onstage at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto to June 20 (national.ballet.ca).