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The National Ballet of Canada

'The Sleeping Beauty'

by Kate Snedeker

November 13, 2009 -- Four Seasons Centre, Toronto, Ontario

Kissing sleeping princesses is a dicey profession these days  - your average 20-30-something healthy prince charming doesn’t qualify for an H1N1 vaccination yet and his trust fund has probably been drained by a Ponzi scheme. Fortunately the Prince and Princess in National Ballet of Canada’s “The Sleeping Beauty” had no such worries, and Nureyev’s opulent production transported the Friday evening audience into a fantasy world far away from flu and financial worries.

When it was debuted in 1972, Nureyev’s “The Sleeping Beauty” was the crown jewel of the NBoC’s repertoire.  Choreographically and artistically it remains a sparkling diamond that is a perfect vehicle for the company’s dancers. Nureyev’s artistic vision is more feral, fierce and non-specific fantasy than classic European fairytale, and takes place in a world almost entirely devoid of children. Thus, it’s a more mature rendering of the traditional fairy tale – more ETA Hoffman than Roy C. Disney adults, and a very refreshing change from the overly Disney-esque versions that seem to plague some companies.

Along the way, however, the luster has worn off the production's visual appearance.. There appears to be a general trend in the ballet world towards the use of increasingly dim lighting, and NBoC is not immune. As with last season’s “Romeo and Juliet”, the lighting for this production left me squinting to see the dancers. The prologue was dimly lit, and the denizens of Act 1 and Act 2 seemed to have minor jaundice.  The lighting is credited to David Hersey, but one has to wonder if his designs have been tinkered with in the last 37 years.  

It’s a shame because bad lighting doesn’t just make it hard to see the dancers, it ruins the effect of the costumes.  The costume palette isn’t particularly vivid to begin with – the bluebird’s stunning blue excepted - and the muddy lighting made it tricky to tell fairy from courtier, courtier from royalty and royalty from fairy. In particular, the king and queen (and thus the ‘baby’ Aurora – it’s rather pivotal that we know we are at a baby shower!!), blended into the scenery. If I remember correctly, royalty in the olden days tended to wear vivid colors because those were the most difficult to dye, and so were a sign of wealth.

The lighting quality certainly picked up in parts of Act 2 and Act 3. However, judging by the glorious photo of Sonia Rodriguez in the Act 3 costume (I believe) gracing the cover of the program, the bodice has far more colour, and the tutu a crisper whiteness than seen in the theatre. The palette is most effective in Act 2 when Prince Florimund is attired in a vivid blue that stands out from his brown-clad huntsmen and the deep red-hued Act 3 (but talk about a feather overdose – the Mayan god headdress on the king is fascinating, but not really fairytale!). So a plea to costume designers and lighting designers – remember that most of your audience is a long way from the stage - don’t skimp on colour and lighting!!

Fortunately, despite the lighting lapses, Nureyev ‘s choreography is a step above most current productions, and the opening night cast was absolutely spectacular.  You could have Heather Ogden and Guillaume Côté dance in garbage bags and they’d still be mesmerizing. The newly engaged couple are to the roles born  - she delicate, fresh faced and steel-toed; he tall, dark, good looking and blessed with an effortless elegance.  Supporting them (literally and figuratively) was a cast of stars and stars to be.

There were a few rough moments for the corps in Act 1 and the garland dance (not a choreographic highlight of this version), but they were quickly forgotten amongst the plethora of fine performances. As amply displayed in her principal fairy variation, Bridgett Zehr is fast becoming one of the company’s prima ballerinas. Though I am not familiar with this production, Zehr seemed to have been saddled with an excessively slow tempo by conductor David Briskin. Yet, she danced elegantly onwards, using the extended musical notes to unfurl her long limbs, hitting all the musical highlights.. Already endowed with a pleasing precision, Zehr’s dancing is coloured with a lovely musicality, and hints of the artistic maturity still to come.

Stepping away from the Disneyesque-evil-witch characterizations, Nureyev’s Carabosse is an older, vengeful woman complete with black bustle skirt. Her retinue is composed of spindly-legged bald beasties right out of a Tim Burton movie, and her evil is spread by a trio of witch-like women who seem to have been inspired by the witches in Hamlet and La Sylphide. In dress and demeanor, she is the foil for the graceful, fairy godmother-like Lilac Fairy.. Both roles were more about character than dance (the lead fairy taking over the solo sometimes danced by the Lilac Fairy), with Victoria Bertram a shiveringly sisister Carabosse and Lisa-Marie Jourdain an unflappable Lilac Fairy.

No matter what anyone says, Act 1 is all about the Rose Adagio. We all know that Princess Aurora is about to become a Sleeping Beauty, so the only real suspense is in whether there will be wobbles… or worse. But with Heather Ogden as Aurora, there were no such worries. In this production, where Aurora never really seems like a giddy girl, the Rose Adagio is more about asserting the strength of maturity than transitioning from girl to woman. But in Ogden’s hands (toes) it was supremely impressive. Other than a telltale waggle of the back leg after the second promenade, she was rock solid, displaying control and musical timing.  But no Aurora can do the Rose Adagio on her own, thus credit should go to the solicitous partnering of the four cavaliers. The program doesn’t name the exact cast for each night, but at least one of the supportive quartet was Patrick Lavoie.

Act 2 is nicely fleshed out with additional dancing for the prince – one never complains about seeing more of Guillaume Côté. Once free of his thigh-high high-heeled boots (were those ever in fashion for men?!), Côté soared across the stage, his elegantly impressive technique at the forefront.  He is perhaps not the highest of jumpers, but is the master of line, stretch and toe point. Every limb is fully-extended, every step fully finished – not a rough edge in sight. There is also attention to character – what character Florimund is given – Côté makes his prince elegant, yet understated and refined so that he stands out from the commoners without being a snob.

While I don't begrudge more chances to see Ogden and Côte together on stage, it is a bit confusing to have Aurora return for an extended rather un-dreamlike sequence. It gives more coherence to the Prince’s love  - he’s not just following a strange fairy to a strange sleeping princess and kissing her without a moment’s hesitation. Yet, it seems like the couple have an entire courtship when she should be asleep in her bed. This oddity is just a quirk, though another reason why the production lends itself to a more mature audience.

The story is all but over by Act 3, so there’s nothing left to do but sit back and enjoy the dance. The jewels Pas de Cinq was ably performed with Piotr Stanczyk in fine form both as a soloist and as a partner. Jillian Vanstone filled in for Bridgett Zehr (previously announced, so likely to allow Zehr to avoid dancing in all three acts). The instrumental soloists went all out to make the score for the Pussycats (Robert Stephen and Klara Houdet) as cat-like as possible, and the pair reacted with a sexy, sly performance.  You can't help laughing at her coyly slapping his roving hand away from her developpe-ing leg.

In the Bluebird pas de deux, I finally had the pleasure of seeing Keiichi Hirano is a role that truly showed off his prodigious talents. He may not have the most flexible of backs, but there’s no lack of height or stretch in his jumps. There was also a very pleasing sense of pace to his series of brise voles – many bluebirds look they are about to crash land by the time they get across the stage, but Hirano kept up the rhythym the entire time. Sonia Rodriguez as Florina is 37 years young – hard to believe she’s celebrating her 20th year with the company.

There’s little more I can say about Ogden and Côté, but this was truly a wonderful wedding pas de deux. Their off stage partnership has clearly added to their on stage chemistry. They are not the most outwardly emotive of dancers, but their connection comes from an obvious trust that lends itself to a joyous fluidity. It was a soaring way to end the evening and to begin the National Ballet of Canada’s 2009-10 season!


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