by Gary Smith

You might have been expecting a dumbed-down Sleeping Beauty. After all, Toronto’s Ballet Jörgen took this grand 19th-century work and reimagined it for a chamber touring company that travels mostly to smaller communities across Canada. Well, you’d be wrong. In spite of some dramatic excesses, this production, which had its October premiere at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre, is a charming, easy-to-follow and child-friendly version of the great Petipa-Tchaikovsky classic, choreographed by artistic director Bengt Jörgen.

Jörgen has found ways of retaining essential iconic dance moments and still expunging narrative and decorative divertissements not necessary to telling the story. Inspired by a legend about how the rose got its thorns, he sees the work more simply as an allegory, a battle between Summer and Winter. In his scenario, darkness and light are conflicting forces embodied by the coldness of Carabosse and the warmth of the Lilac Fairy. Prince Florimund, for his part, represents the essential rebirth of Spring after the bleak Winter. For me, the most exquisite moment was Jörgen’s Vision Scene, with the Lilac Fairy urging Florimund to cut away the dead brambles — an ensemble of dancers — to reveal the sleeping Aurora, a budding pink rose, wrapped in Winter white.

And purists need not fear. The Bluebird Pas de Deux, pleasantly if not thrillingly danced by handsome Gustavo Hernandez and pretty Annelie Liliemark, is intact. And the Grand Pas de Deux for Aurora (Saniya Abilmajineva) and Prince Florimund (Daniel Da Silva) is there, complete with the excitement of what generally passes for the original Petipa choreography.

Jörgen has cleverly reimagined the story to incorporate some magical moments. His collision of dark and light, with Carabosse and the Lilac Fairy struggling for supremacy, is dramatically sound. The dancing of a band of black-clad tormenters who support Carabosse’s darker spirit is beautifully staged, and, when Aurora and her Prince are joined in love, the band passes between them, a reminder that darkness is always present even in joy, and that the beauty of the pale pink rose will always need its sharp protective thorns.

Abilmajineva, a 29-year-old dancer who came to Canada from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, to dance with Ballet Jörgen, is a radiant Aurora, suggesting in her early moments the youth, promise and adventurous spirit of a girl on the verge of womanhood. However, more passionate rapport was needed between this Aurora and her Prince, danced by the solid and reliable Da Silva, a muscular veteran who has played many leading roles in Ballet Jörgen productions.

Also, Abilmajineva struggled with the fiendish Rose Adagio, awkwardly placing her foot on the floor between balances and failing to build tension. She was not helped by suitors encouraged to behave like comic bunglers. Hernandez, Kirill Poselyanov, Adrián Ramírez Juarez and Igor Voloshyn didn’t look comfortable with the comedy and it was difficult to believe these men were cavaliers longing for the hand of Aurora.

Jörgen’s King and CleaIveson’s Queen went too far with their histrionics when Aurora is sent into Winter suspension after pricking her finger. Their performances were old-fashioned and overblown for the rest of the production, too, though it was good to see Iveson onstage again (after 20 seasons as a dancer with the company, she is now their education manager).

Hiroto Saito, a spirited Carabosse, beautifully executed his tours en l’air and never lost the momentum of Jörgen’s airborne choreography. Hannah Mae Cruddas made a stunning Lilac Fairy, finding every nuance, dancing with radiant perfection, suggesting the heart and soul of a creature who inspires love.

Jörgen’s idea that the ballet is propelled by the seasons is a good one and was suggested simply, without unnecessary visual representation. Designer Camellia Koo set the work in a single setting, a common ground that is surrounded by vines and edged with tattered leaves and thorns. Their burnished silver tone is highlighted as shadows play across them evocatively.

Koo’s costumes for the dancers portraying the thorns and for Carabosse were perfect, but the Suitors are dressed in vivid hues at odds with the production’s visual subtlety. The biggest visual misstep is the bizarre brown, tree-like costumes for Jörgen and Ivesen that look like something wrenched from a 1930s’ Flash Gordon serial, giving an otherworldly feel to Koo’s Garden of Eden setting. Tutus are exquisite and move beautifully, no doubt thanks to Anne Armit’s expert involvement as “tutu co-ordinator and cutter.”

All in all this is a good production with its own intriguing point of view, proving that with imagination you can reimagine a classical warhorse without trying to rival the big company productions. It tours across Canada, with a break for Ballet Jörgen’s annual Nutcracker (a Canadian-themed production also choreographed by Jörgen), through to the end of April.

DI WINTER 2015

Ballet Jörgen company dancers in Bengt Jörgen's Sleeping Beauty
Ballet Jörgen company dancers in Bengt Jörgen’s Sleeping Beauty
Photo: Lawrence Ho