The History of 'The Sleeping Beauty'
National Ballet of Canada
by Karen Barr
November, 2009 -- National Arts Center, Ottawa
It’s the opening for The National Ballet’s “The Sleeping Beauty” at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. The dress rehearsal starts in one hour, but before the show, a group of approximately 200 of the Centre’s charitable donors assemble for a pre-performance talk. Barry M. Bloom, Senior Development Office for the Ballet, thanks the crowd for helping to give the arts life, before introducing the speaker, Peter Ottmann.
Poised and confident, Peter Ottmann is living a full circle moment. The Renfrew, Ontario native is senior ballet master for The National Ballet of Canada. He was a member of the original cast of “The Sleeping Beauty”, playing the part of a page boy, at the age of thirteen. The first performance debuted in Ottawa.
The ballet was choreographed by the legendary Rudolf Nureyev, who also cast himself in the lead as Prince Florimund. Ottmann remembers Nureyev as being very demanding of the dancers and expecting the emotion of the character to be portrayed not only on the outside but on the inside as well. He also held movement to be precise, something which Ottmann expects of his dancers today.
“Something as simplistic as fifth position must be precise. If it is loose and inattentive, it doesn’t represent perfection. I’m always shouting to my dancers ‘Fifth! Fifth!’” He jumps down off the podium to give a visual on how the position should look when executed correctly.
Ottmann uses Karen Kain as an example of a dancer with this kind of precision.
“When she dances, her movements are indescribably beautiful.”
He makes a comparison between modern and classic dance. Modern dance invites the audience inside the world that they have created, while classic dance presents a perfect world that represents order and peace.
“Everyone lives happily ever after in fairytales,” he sighs.
But, behind the scenes, life is not always perfect.
As years went by, he remembers watching Rudolf Nureyev age and the toll it took on the dancer’s body. “The Sleeping Beauty” was becoming physically more challenging for the ballet legend.
“Rudy was getting on in years,” Ottmann remembers, “and it was taking him longer to recover from his scenes, during the intermissions. I used to stand outside his dressing room wondering if he needed more coffee, and praying that my scene would be cut.”
The three hour ballet could not afford to go into overtime. There were too many people to pay and it could spell financial disaster. Sections of the ballet would often be eliminated, allowing Nureyev to enter the stage when he felt ready to dance again. For Ottmann, now a lead soloist, this was a welcome relief. His solo came right before the final act and the end of the ballet when Rudolf Nureyev often felt exhausted.
Ottmann describes this solo as grueling and thigh crunching for the dancer from the very beginning, with sideways erratic jumps that don’t appear all that impressive to the audience. In short, the audience would clap politely while waiting for the star to return to the stage.
“It took me almost ten years to appreciate that particular piece of choreography. Rumour has it Rudy designed it that way, so that when he entered the stage for the final act… he would look good!” Ottmann chuckles and the crowd laughs.
When the time came, Rudolf Nureyev himself coached Ottmann for his debut as Prince Florimund. But his first public performance came in the most unique of circumstances.
An unnamed guest dancer, from New York was playing the lead role to Karen Kain’s Princess Aurora. While exiting the stage with her he fell, just out of the view of the audience. His back went into severe spasms. The dancer could not get up, yet the performance had to continue.
Suddenly, Karen Kain appeared on stage, surprising the uninformed orchestra which was playing the introduction for the male lead. The visual clue caused some of the musicians to switch to the music for the female lead. Kain waited until her ear picked up the proper melody and she began to dance.
Backstage, the ballet company was trying to pick a new male lead.
“I was like a Muppet jumping up and down shouting, ‘Pick me! Pick me!’” recalls Ottmann, laughing at his own eagerness to perform the role.
Ottmann finished dancing his regular part, before placing Prince Florimund’s hat on his head to finish the evening’s performance.
“I was ready, but someone forgot to tell Karen. In the scene, she was supposed to come down the stairs with the prince. She was already half way down when I ran on stage and quickly up the stairs. I grabbed her hand and startled her, but we danced on.”
“Always have a plan A, B, C and D,” he explains to the laughing crowd.
Today, as The National Ballet’s Artistic Director, Karen Kain has restaged “The Sleeping Beauty” to rave reviews.
Kain told the Canadian Press, “The Sleeping Beauty has an important place in the history of The National Ballet of Canada. Rudolph Nureyev set his famous version of the work on our company in 1972, an event that is still a famous milestone in our evolution.”
Looking back thirty-seven years, a young boy named Peter Ottmann could have never imagined his role in Canadian dance history. His long career in a profession he clearly loves is a dream realized. Ah, yes, maybe fairytales can come true, after all.