Dancer faces classical ballet's ultimate challenge

Alexandra MacDonald performs the role of Princess Aurora for the first time ever in the National Ballet's current production, considered the most technically challenging role in classical ballet, following artistic director Karen Kain's footsteps, whose international career was launched by this role 46 years ago.

Rose Adagio in Sleeping Beauty a test of grace under enormous pressure

Karen Kain (right) coaches Alexandra MacDonald in the role of Princess Aurora, 46 years after the role launched Kain's own international career. (David Donnelly/CBC)

On Saturday afternoon, Alexandra MacDonald performs one of the most difficult movements in classical ballet – the Rose Adagio.

"The Rose Adage is iconic," said MacDonald, speaking a few weeks before her performance of Princess Aurora in The National Ballet of Canada's 2018 production of Sleeping Beauty. 

The technically demanding movement comes in the first act at Aurora's birthday party, when the princess dances with four suitors, each of whom gives her a rose. There are four balances — ferociously difficult — where the ballerina is en pointe, the other leg bent waist-high behind her, briefly releasing the supporting arm of her suitor.

Each balance lasts no more than a second or so, but they require maximum strength and stamina.

Ferociously difficult balances 

Ballerinas are also judged for their ability to transcend the physical demands by conveying grace, poise and stability. Throw in the ability to express the qualities of an innocent young girl experiencing romance for the first time, and there's a reason that audiences invariably burst into applause during the Rose Adagio.

MacDonald can't remember a time when she didn't know about the Rose Adagio — she thinks she may have first encountered it in a book as a child, growing up in Calgary. 

"I feel like I've just always been aware of it," says MacDonald. By now, she's watched many times on stage, standing aside as other Auroras before her took centre stage.

"And every time, I've had so much pleasure watching principles perform it, and each one has her own interpretation of how shy they are, how confident they are. And each principal dancer decides when those moments happen — that isn't choreographed."

The Sleeping Beauty ballet itself, an 1890 collaboration between the father of classical ballet Marius Petipa and composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, is a test of the entire company's classical mettle.

Legendary Russian dancer Rudolph Nureyev set his version of the ballet on The National Ballet of Canada, putting the Canadian troupe on the international ballet map. Karen Kain made her own leap to ballet stardom performing the role of Aurora with Nureyev as her prince.

In 1973, the New York Times praised Kain's performance of the Rose Adagio, saying that if all the rest of the company's Auroras performed it as well as the 22-year-old Kain, "the Toronto company has an outstanding reserve of talent for the future."

The ballet is only performed once every four years, and Kain was determined to make MacDonald one of the seven ballerinas to perform Aurora in 2018.

MacDonald's turn comes in a matinee performance near the end of the run.

Kain says she made the decision, watching MacDonald in the Nutcracker last Christmas.

"She has all the qualities of Aurora," said Kain. "When I watched her do the Snow Queen, I saw this luminescence, plus she's very beautiful — I don't want to embarrass her," Kain smiled, lowering her voice.

Equally prized is MacDonald's beautiful jump. "You need to jump like a gazelle," said Kain. "There's a lot of qualities you need in Aurora but if you can't jump, it's not for you."

The challenges keep coming

MacDonald got the news in Kain's office at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on Queen Street. "I'm so thrilled and happy," MacDonald said. "It's also terrifying and nerve-wracking."

Karen Kain (right) rehearses the wedding scene in Sleeping Beauty with First Soloist Alexandra MacDonald. "A generous, regal solo", Kain calls it, at the end of the ballet when ballerinas are fatigued, but also grounded, having already met some of the ballet's toughest challenges. (David Donnelly/CBC)

That day, when she learned that in a couple of months' time, she would dance Aurora, MacDonald remembers looking down at her hands, surprised to find them shaking.

The Rose Adagio, the ballet's athletic pinnacle, comes early in the ballet so dancers must learn to pace themselves —because the challenges keep coming. The ethereal second act in which Aurora appears to the Prince as a vision is deceptively simple but demands enormous control, said Kain, while the third act with its wedding scene involves "a whole lot of jumping and turning."

The wedding scene is one of MacDonald's favourites, especially the pas de deux she dances with the prince — by which time the shy, uncertain girl from the Rose Adagio is transformed into a confident young woman.

"I really love that solo," said MacDonald. "It feels regal and majestic. I love ending the ballet that way. The first act is bubbly and lively, the middle act is dreamy. And the third act — you're married, you're confident, so happy, and in that particular solo, I love being able to embody those things."

What the audience can't see is that by then MacDonald's legs will be shaking from exhaustion.

“You become the embodiment of Aurora as you're performing,” says Kain, “if you are, as Alex is, the one who has the most radiant personality, the line and the form before she started rehearsals. Line and form and musicality and beauty and graciousness, she has everything!” (David Donnelly/CBC)

Kain remembers vividly what it's like to reach the wedding solo.

"Just the amount of fatigue you have — it's so grounding. And it actually makes you feel so much calmer and better when you get to that solo. It's beautifully constructed, this ballet, in terms of how the choreography represents the parts of Aurora's life. That's what we admire about it. And it's why it's a ballet that's still around — there are so many challenges for the artists within it."

In casting MacDonald as Aurora, Kain may also have seen something of her younger self in the 23-year-old MacDonald.

Kain laughs with delight when MacDonald tells her that the company's costume mistress fitted the younger dancer with the same ornate tutu that Kain wore as Aurora.

"I'm honoured!" laughs Kain. "It shows what good care we take of our costumes at the National. That tutu goes back to 1972!"

Sleeping Beauty continues at the Four Seasons Centre for Performing Arts until Sunday, March 18th