- The Sleeping Beauty
- Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
- National Ballet of Canada
- Runs Until
- Saturday, June 20, 2015
In New York, choreographer Alexei Ratmansky has restaged The Sleeping Beauty for American Ballet Theatre by consulting 200-odd pages of choreographic notation that were compiled after the ballet's 1890 premiere. Ratmansky's plan was to get as close to the original ballet as possible; his version features all the technical modesty of the era: low legs, mild turnout, loose knees, even semi-pointed feet.
To contemporary sensibilities, some of these technical modifications sound as heretical as singing off-key. Critics have been generally enthusiastic – it seems that less leg-centric dancing allows for refreshing expressiveness in the upper body, which means more nuance, more acting.
But I think that most people would agree that ballet has gotten better – much better – over the course of the past century. And what's so great about the National Ballet of Canada's version of The Sleeping Beauty is that it's chock full of the high legs, virtuosic jumps and devouring of space that so distinguishes late 20th-century ballet.
The production was rechoreographed by Rudolf Nureyev in 1966, then set on the National Ballet in 1972. It has been remounted and toured by the company numerous times. The dancing sequences are gorgeous, varied and technically difficult, and Tchaikovsky's score evokes all the lushness of Imperialism on its last legs. There's an opulent set, with a grand twisting staircase, hanging brocade and giant candelabra. Watching the ballet, I do get that familiar squeamishness that all the "classics" give me: I wish there were an option to fast-forward through the dated story bits and courtier scenes. But I try to see these hokey interludes as a kind of paying my dues for stretches of fantastically demanding allegro and beauty like that of the ethereal Naiads in Act 2.
On opening night, Harrison James was my kind of Prince Florimund: strong, elegant, introspective, then alternately a little arrogant and sweet. The corps de ballet dancer has just been promoted straight to first soloist (skipping the second-soloist rank) and you can see why. There's emotional sensitivity in his work and then personality, too. Nureyev gives Prince Florimund a melancholic solo in Act 2 – the prince is yearning for love – and James infuses this with contemplative intensity. There's a repeated port de bras with low arms and a subtle cambré (backwards bend) through which he poetically expresses longing. Dancing with his vision of Princess Aurora, joy becomes a physical experience. The "work" is invisible; instead the steps seem like an effortless extension of his volition and he takes over the whole stage.
I had a different experience watching principal dancer Greta Hodgkinson as Princess Aurora – her "work" was too visible. One of the pinnacle sequences in Beauty is the Rose Adagio, which culminates in a long balance on pointe in attitude derrière (one bent leg is lifted behind the body) – a balance that is reprised as Aurora takes and releases the hand of each suitor. It's a very famous bit of choreography that I've never really liked, chiefly because the payoff is so low; it's much harder than it is impressive. Hodgkinson's balances were strained and cautious, qualities that seemed to define most of her dancing on Wednesday night. I found her unable to match James's exuberance and energy, or build any tension or chemistry with him – rather crucial for a love story.
On the Thursday evening, Sonia Rodriguez (celebrating her 25th anniversary with the company) offered a sharp, captivating and fully convincing depiction of 16-year-old Aurora. Skittish and playful in Act 1, then desirous and self-assured in Act 3, Rodriguez's interpretation found texture in both the choreography and Aurora's state-of-mind. Piotr Stanczyk performed a more extroverted version of Prince Florimund, and while I wondered a bit about the lack of plié on some of his landings, the chemistry between this couple was palpable, if not intense.
One of the standout performances was second soloist Alexandra MacDonald as the principal fairy in Act 1 and the Diamond Lady in Act 3. As the tallest female dancer on stage, MacDonald exudes power and poise. She brought an understated coyness to the Diamond Lady, creating a frisson with Diamond Man Jack Bertinshaw (promoted to second soloist), who also impressed with dynamic jumps.
The company has just announced promotions for next season, and it was satisfying to track these dancers onstage. Jordana Daumec (promoted to first soloist) was sprightly and charismatic as Princess Florine, while retiring first soloist Keiichi Hirano, always a consummate jumper, wowed the audience as Bluebird with his sequence of fluttering brisés volé. My one quibble in their famous pas de deux was it prioritized showcase at the cost of any intimacy. I found my eye drawn to the luminous Emma Hawes as the third fairy and the willowy Kathryn Hosier as Emerald in Pas de Cinq. Happily, both dancers have just been promoted to second soloist, so they'll keep stepping into larger parts next year.