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The Sleeping Beauty’s 50th Anniversary
A Reflection by Veronica Tennant
March 21, 2022

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Rudolf Nureyev and Veronica Tennant in The Sleeping Beauty (1972).

Was it really 50 years ago when Rudolf Nureyev strode into our National Ballet studio to begin rehearsing his production of The Sleeping Beauty?  We dancers nervously awaited him. He entered, the grandest of princes, the original superstar. His movements were appropriately dashing, surprisingly graceful. What we hadn’t expected, was – a man – not tall, oddly dressed in a woolen cap and tight leathers, a man – whose eyes twinkled like someone you’d always known, who chuckled when you were introduced, who made immediate contact with every person in the room yet noticed the instant anyone left. His was a spell-spinning power of communication.

In the summer of 1972 we’d just returned from our first European tour, deeply significant for then Artistic Director and Founder of The National Ballet of Canada, Celia Franca, who’d triumphantly taken us back to London, England, where her ballet career began. In the incredibly brief span of three and a half weeks, we plunged into learning Rudolf Nureyev’s complex and challenging choreography. Rudolf loved solving the physical puzzles of classical ballet, just as he insisted on posing them. And he never spared himself from our judgments. In class each morning, we watched him strive, poking wicked fun at himself. I became consumed with my role of Princess Aurora, with the Rose Adagio – the most technically exacting variation in a classical ballerina’s repertoire. At every show, even though his entrance came midway into the second act, Rudolf did barre in the front wing, watching and willing each of his Auroras to conquer. Indeed, not a detail of anyone’s dancing in the entire cast escaped his eagle eye.

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Veronica Tennant and Rudolf Nureyev in rehearsal with Artists of the Ballet (1972). Photo courtesy of The Toronto Star.

It was exhilarating to dance with Rudolf, to be cajoled and inspired to share in his example, to catch glimpse of his vision. With Rudi we came of age and we grew.  He woke us, as dancers, with the kiss, that changed our lives. His choreography always sought the tight-rope path; solos ending poised on pointe instead of safely flat, the extra pirouettes he’d insert in his coda where most dancers would use the time for puff, the finale that packed pirouettes with pas-de-chats and flourish. Rudolf’s dancing was edged with triumph.

There were many firsts, from opening at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa to performing in every major city in the US. Four exhausting months later, I found myself onstage as Princess Aurora on The National Ballet of Canada’s opening night at The Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, (where I first heard audiences roar). I learned how ballet could be sensitive, startling, have vibrancy and attack. A skilled partner, at technically difficult points, Rudolf would shoot fire into my eyes. In easier passages, he’d quirkily test for balance – and bravery. Always, he demanded connection. This moment onstage was ours for the taking – and – for the giving. “You must grab public with stillness after your solo”- he’d say in his idiosyncratic English, stopping by the dressing room.  “You hold balances well, but now scream with your arms – make them, the public, scream too!” And they did.

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Veronica Tennant and Rudolf Nureyev in The Sleeping Beauty (1972).

On grueling tours, whether it was the sponsors or he who scheduled his eight performances a week – he seemed superhuman. Much was made of Rudolf Nureyev’s volatile displays and temper tantrums. And yes, many of the stories were true. I came to suspect that he was whipping up his adrenalin to combat deep fatigue. He had no patience with mediocrity and complacency and I think he may have fanned and piqued sudden rages so that he might never lapse into rote. Acutely aware of his larger responsibility to the art, Rudolf expected from us what he demanded of himself, he sought beyond perfection. And magical were the times when he re-defined it.

And now 2022 – how can this be? With memories reinvigorated and watching generations of the company dancers tackle and master the challenges, I’ve come to understand how meticulously researched, brilliantly conceived and imaginatively staged this production is. How right it is that my magnificent friend Karen Kain, whom Rudolf championed, is the inspiring force staging this momentous anniversary production. I know Rudi would be smiling approval – of her spirit, artistry and her chosen dancers, who brilliantly rejuvenate the balletic legacy that is The Sleeping Beauty.

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Veronica Tennant and Rudolf Nureyev in The Sleeping Beauty (1972).


Veronica Tennant, C.C., D.Litt, LL.D., FRSC
Principal Dancer with The National Ballet of Canada 1964 – 1989,
Filmmaker, Author, Producer/Director https://veronicatennant.com

Veronica’s latest film, Christopher Plummer: A Memoir, is streaming currently on Hot Docs Digital  ‘In Memoriam’ until April 28, 2022)  https://hotdocs.ca/whats-on/films/christopher-plummer

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