When Karen Kain first took over as artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada in 2005, one of her goals was to raise the standard of classical technique. After her company's opening night performance of The Sleeping Beauty, she has to acknowledge her success.
For me, two defining moments stand out in what is considered the crown jewel of classical ballet: one for the lead ballerina, the other for the danseur noble. Each represents classical perfection, and anchors the ballet.
The first is the famous Act 1 Rose Adagio performed by Princess Aurora (Heather Ogden) and her four suitors (Jonathan Renna, Nan Wang, Noah Long and McGee Maddox).
The most dazzling element finds Aurora balanced in an arabesque en pointe, her other leg raised, one arm above her head. Each of the suitors in turn holds her hand. In between partners, she raises her other arm above her head, which means that the only connection Aurora has to gravity is the tiny point of one toe shoe.
What balletomanes are waiting for is how long Aurora can balance before grabbing the next suitor's hand to steady herself, and Ogden did not disappoint. Her performance was jaw-dropping. Without so much as a wobble, she seemed to hang in the air for an eternity. And her suitors' partnering was bang on during the changes.
Rudolf Nureyev's 1972 production is based on the 1890 Petipa choreography, but the great dancer, not surprisingly, beefed up the role of Prince Florimund (Guillaume Côté).
We first meet the prince in a hunting scene where the dancer is at his regal, commanding best. After Florimund has dismissed his colleagues, he performs a long, reflective solo. It is a dance that expresses not just malaise, but an inchoate yearning. He is by himself so he can show his vulnerability.
Florimund has to weave steps together to create a meaningful whole, and it's not easy. The solo must be a fluidity of combinations completed as one legato flow. Back arches, controlled leg circles from the knee, gentle jumps with flutter kicks, swooping yet perfectly positioned turns, are all punctuated by arms outstretched in longing.
This solo is very different from any other part in Beauty. The dancer must set aside virtuoso tricks, and rivet the eye with quiet emotion. Côté covered the stage in lyrical grace.
The couple, who are married in real life, showed their flare for Russian imperial style flash and dash. They are, in truth, both technical monsters. Ogden may be a trifle tall for Côté in terms of perfect lines, but together, they made Beauty's many challenges look effortless. If I have one quibble, I wanted Florimund to wake up Aurora with a more passionate kiss.
And then there's the fabled Bluebird pas de deux. The Bluebird (Naoya Ebe) is in the air more than he's on the ground. The series of jumps is never-ending, and Ebe is definitely a prince in the making. The crowd went crazy for him.
As for his partner, Princess Florine (Elena Lobsanova), she has to negotiate rapid-fire, intricate footwork, which Lobsanova sailed through.
There are enough showy variations in Beauty to necessitate depth in the ranks which Kain has ensured the National possesses. The soloists looked impressive in the six prologue fairy variations and the Act 3 pas decinq.
Corps member Alexandra MacDonald as the Principal Fairy, was a particular stand-out. Tall and willowy, she is blessed with a stately presence and crisp technique. Definitely one to watch. The corps de ballet was near perfection in the ensemble numbers.
The Sleeping Beauty is thought by many to be Tchaikovsky's finest score, and conductor David Briskin and his musicians were rewarded with an enthusiastic ovation for their interpretation.
In short, the National Ballet glitters in this gem of a production.
The Sleeping Beauty
- Choreography by Rudolf Nureyev (after Marius Petipa)
- National Ballet of Canada
- Four Seasons Centre
- In Toronto on Saturday
The National Ballet's production of The Sleeping Beauty continues at the Four Seasons Centre until Mar. 18.