Remembering Rudolf
A Q&A with Peter Ottmann, Senior Ballet Master
by Caroline Dickie
March 24, 2022

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Rudolf Nureyev as Prince Florimund in The Sleeping Beauty, 1974. Photo by Myra Armstrong.

Rudolf Nureyev’s The Sleeping Beauty has been a jewel in The National Ballet of Canada repertoire since 1972 when it launched a new phase of artistic growth and acclaim for the young company. Senior Ballet Master Peter Ottmann was just a child when he appeared in those early performances and he is now the ballet’s loyal custodian, imparting his knowledge to a new generation of dancers. We asked Peter to share some of his memories of Nureyev and his experience with this legacy work.

What is your earliest memory of Nureyev?

I was a student at Canada’s National Ballet School and I’d been cast as a Page Boy in The Sleeping Beauty. I remember Nureyev made quite an entrance to the studio. He arrived a half hour late with a massive fur coat and leather boots up to his thighs. He walked into the room and everyone stopped what they were doing and kind of held their breath for a moment. After Celia Franca walked over to greet him, he proceeded to throw his coat over her chair and he sat down – in her chair. So, there was the founder of The National Ballet of Canada standing there with nowhere to sit. I can remember thinking to myself, “No way, he didn’t just do that!”

But Nureyev was not a mean person by any stretch. He was very generous and he had a special spot in his heart for the National Ballet, which became evident as the years went on. That’s because the company went with him all the way in his vision for this work. The cooperation that he found is what the National Ballet is known for. To my mind, Nureyev had a public persona he created to turn the spotlight on himself and the art of dance. He did all kinds of outrageous things to get people talking and it worked. I’m still talking about him!

Can you give us an example?

One season I was cast as a Servant in the hunt scene and I had to kneel down and unzip Nureyev’s boots so he could perform his solo as Prince Florimund. He was wearing his dance shoes inside the boots but I couldn’t get them off. He was looking down at me and muttering under his breath, “I’m going to be late for my solo, get these boots off!” Turns out he was gripping them with his toes so that I couldn’t get them off. Sometimes he would play these sorts of tricks during a show to ensure we were never on autopilot and to get the adrenaline flowing.

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Mary Jago as Princess Aurora and Peter Ottmann as Prince Florimund in The Sleeping Beauty, 1981. Photo by Andrew Oxenham.

The National Ballet was still developing as a company when Nureyev arrived. How would you describe his contribution?

Celia had already established a high standard, with impeccable musicality and a purity of movement and line. Nureyev was very physical about everything and he made the dancers commit to their movements with a new level of confidence. For example, in Act III, Florimund holds Princess Aurora’s hand and helps her relevé into arabesque on pointe. Usually, she would relevé in place but Nureyev wanted to expand the movement and create a stronger dynamic so he would pull her so that she shot forward a foot or more in front of her. That action made the movement sparkle. It was hard but it improved the dancer’s technique. Nureyev was always inserting things like that into the choreography for the benefit of dance and the betterment of the dancer. I think his presence made us more secure in our artistry, our technique and our sense of ourselves. Nureyev was a taskmaster, but it was well worth it. He kept everybody alive, alert and ready to go.

At the time, The Sleeping Beauty was the largest production the company had ever performed. Was there a specific energy associated with that?

Absolutely, it galvanized the entire company. Not only was it the largest ballet the company had ever done, but it was also the most expensive. The budget was beyond anything the company had ever imagined. Several Board members remortgaged their homes to help pay for it. To me that’s extraordinary. I have such deep gratitude for the people who have supported this company and who continue to do so. We are the beneficiaries of these remarkable individuals and their generosity. They truly are unsung heroes.

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Peter Ottmann with Artists of the Ballet in rehearsal for The Sleeping Beauty, 2006. Photo by Sian Richards.

Few people in the company today have firsthand knowledge of Nureyev. Do you try to share his teachings when you rehearse the ballet today?  

Yes, because there were certain things he was very specific about. For instance, when Florimund enters the hunt scene he has a real swagger to him and he flirts with the Count’s wife right in front of his nose. But once everyone leaves and Florimund is alone, you see who the man really is and his longing for love. That’s pure Nureyev.

I danced many roles in Beauty over the years and eventually I had the opportunity to perform as Florimund, with private coaching from Nureyev. I still share the little tricks and techniques that he taught me, particularly with respect to partnering. He was a brilliant partner. I’ll tell today’s dancers, “that comes from Nureyev,” to give him credit and keep him part of the work.

Why is Nureyev’s version of The Sleeping Beauty so special? What sets it apart?

The pure classical structure, Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous music, the way the story is told – it’s just magic. There’s nothing awkward or out of place. Take the moment when The Lilac Fairy guides Florimund to the castle, for example. Very little is happening in that moment but the music is heavenly and the scene fits perfectly as they glide across the stage on their way to the castle. The Sleeping Beauty is filled with these moments of musical and choreographic perfection. I’m in awe of it and I feel so privileged to still have a part in it. I love sharing the gift of this ballet with others and that’s what makes my job a joy.

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Peter Ottmann. Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic.

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