National Ballet of Canada's "The Sleeping Beauty"

The National Ballet of Canada launched its 2009/10 hometown season on November 13 by reviving its long-serving production of The Sleeping Beauty, first staged for the company in 1972 by former Soviet defector and ballet superstar Rudolf Nureyev.

A capacity audience at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre opera house gave opening night leads Heather Ogden and Guillaume Côté a justly deserved ovation. There was equal applause for those in supporting roles, notably Bluebird pas de deux couple Sonia Rodriguez and Keiichi Hirano and for Principal Fairy Bridgett Zehr.

Zehr joined NBC from Houston Ballet in 2006 and was made a principal earlier this year. Her incandescent stage presence, extraordinary musicality and true ballerina poise soon made her an NBC audience favorite. Thus the fans were out in strength on November 15 to see Zehr’s debut as Princess Aurora and she did not disappoint them. Where Ogden offers a high spirited princess eagerly on the brink of womanhood, Zehr’s portrayal suggests a more tentative, fragile nature, though one that gains in self-confidence as the drama unfolds.

NBC’s Nureyev production has sometimes been criticized for demoting the Lilac Fairy to a purely mime role — he stole some of her music to give the prince more dancing — and for omitting Tchaikovsky’s musical apotheosis. Yet, as other companies have kept fiddling around with their Sleeping Beauty productions, NBC has stuck with Nureyev’s because its virtues far outweigh its shortcomings. It is now a beloved company heirloom.

Designer Nicholas Georgiadis’ sets and costumes, evoking the courtly grandeur of France’s “Sun King,” Louis XIV, are opulently spectacular, the more so since being given a $700,000 refurbishment in 2006. Although some of the choreography he created for his own role as Prince Florimund seems overly fussy, Nureyev’s general handling of Marius Petipa’s 1890 St. Petersburg masterwork is respectful and dramatically plausible. The geometrics of the major set pieces for the female corps are splendid and the cascade of brilliant variations that fill the ballet, from the Prologue’s fairies through to Act III’s divertissements and grand pas de deux for Florimund and the awakened Aurora, are technically dazzling.

NBC artistic director Karen Kain has a strong attachment to this production. It was her spring board to international stardom more than 30 years ago and now, as the person responsible for staging it, Kain, aided by an artistic staff that also knows the ballet well, pays meticulous attention to every detail. As a result, NBC’s Sleeping Beauty remains among its most fully accomplished productions.