Washington balletgoers rarely get to see the National Ballet of Canada so it is a special treat when this extraordinary company performs at the Kennedy Center, as it is now through Sunday, February 2. Following a mixed repertoire earlier this week, the troupe kicked off the first of five performances of its opulent Sleeping Beauty on Thursday night.
The opening night cast was led by the always elegant Heather Ogden in the role of Princess Aurora, with Harrison James as her Prince Florimund. Together, the two principal dancers appeared almost preternaturally calm and sometimes a little too careful throughout Act I. But they gained steam in Act II and finally sparkled in Act III. That is not to say the performance was not completely dazzling. there was a great deal of splendor in both Ogden’s and James’s dancing throughout the evening.
Ogden’s portrayal of Aurora was as intelligent and subtle as her dancing was authoritatively graceful and, indeed, reliable. I never doubted her ability to get through the most demanding section of the evening, the Rose Adagio, and she did not disappoint. She handled the infamous series of balances with a steely serenity. Yet where this glorious dancer truly proved her mettle was in the grand pas de deux of Act III. Making good use of the music played with crystalline clarity by the musicians of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, Ogden soared when the music did and entranced the audience in quieter moments.
James is strong and a masterful technician but he seemed to lack attack in his movements early in the evening. He came much more alive here. His turns and jumps were nearly perfect all night long, but it was in Act III where he finally started to look like he might take flight.
If Ogden and James took a little time to wake up Thursday night, their colleagues took charge from the very beginning. While the captivating Tanya Howard was a gently authoritative Lilac Fairy, it was disappointing to see this extraordinary ballerina in a role that called for almost no dancing. Still, Howard made the most of it and imbued her portrayal with a sense of mystery and otherworld beauty.
Meanwhile, the fairies in Act I attacked every step with delight and vigor, and the corps de ballet’s refined precision throughout the night provided classical backbone. Emma Hawes as the principal fairy was a standout in Act I, as were Naoya Ebe and Elena Lobsanova as Bluebird and Princess Florine in Act III.
The Sleeping Beauty closes February 2, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
This particular production of the 19th century classic occupies a special place in the National Ballet of Canada’s history, and in the career of current Artistic Director Karin Kain. First set on the company in 1972 by the legendary Russian dancer Rudolph Nureyev, who based his version on the original 1890 choreography by Marius Petipa, the production was a watershed moment.
It was a huge hit with audiences throughout Canada and the U.S., and its debut in New York in 1973 with Nureyev and Kain in the lead roles brought the ballet company critical acclaim. Nureyev plucked Kain, then only 20 and a newly-minted principal dancer, from one of the fairy roles to dance Princess Aurora (along with Veronica Tennant, who danced with Nureyev the night the ballet premiered at the National Arts Centre, in Ottowa, in September 1972.), and it launched the ballerina’s decades-long career as a dancer and later as company leader.
The company filmed the production in 1974 with Tennant and Nureyev in the lead roles. It was seen by millions of television viewers worldwide and went on to win an International Emmy Award.
Time moves on. A number of long-serving National Ballet of Canada personnel have retired or soon will. In 2021, Kain will step down from the leadership post she has held since 2005 and a next generation will take over. Whether this consequential production of The Sleeping Beauty will live on is unclear. Lovers of ballet and ballet history would be wise to see it this week.
The Sleeping Beauty. Choreography by Rudolph Nureyev after Marius Petipa. Music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Staged by Karen Kain. Scenery and costume design by Nichoals Georgiadis. Lighting design by David Hersey. The National Ballet of Canada, Karin Kain, Artistic Director. Presented at the Kennedy Center Opera House through February 2 with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, Evan Rogister, Principal Conductor. Reviewed by Maria Di Mento.