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Seven years after taking over artisic leadership of Toledo Ballet, Nigel Burgoine continues to raise the barre. Each year he expects more of his young dancers. Each year they deliver.
Next Saturday at the Stranahan Theater, the company presents Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty, one of the most demanding works in the classical repertoire.
"This has been a great opportunity," said Burgoine. "Learning so much choreography is a big challenge for our dancers."
Because it requires such a large ensemble, even professional companies have difficulties producing Sleeping Beauty, he added.
There is no problem with numbers. Toledo Ballet studios are overflowing with students -- even with male dancers. Six years ago there was only one; now there are 29.
But more interesting than numbers alone is the increasingly professional approach that Burgoine is able to effect. Sleeping Beauty is a milestone, he says.
In past productions, Burgoine has extensively tailored choreographies to accommodate the skills of his young dancers. Not for Sleeping Beauty. Large blocks of Saturday's production feature the original 1890 Marius Petipa choreography as premiered in 1890 at St. Petersburg's Maryinsky Theater.
The only guest artists are Tricia Sundbeck and Jay Goodlet, both of Cincinnati Ballet, who dance the lead roles of Aurora and the Prince.
"In the past we had to hire dancers. Now we can pull them from our own ranks. That has opened all sorts of possibilities," said Burgoine.
The dancers are plenty challenged.
Nicole Lemons, an 18-year-old senior at The Performing Arts School, appears in four roles. In the Prologue she is one of the good fairies. The middle acts find her in various corps de ballet roles. In the finale, she dances a pas de deux as the White Cat, the consort of Puss and Boots.
The various roles have kept Nicole in the studio. Rehearsals, which run Monday through Thursday evenings and again on Saturday, began in January.
"It has taken a lot of stamina, but it has also been really fun," said Nicole, who hopes to dance professionally after high school.
Alexa Hazelton, a 16-year-old a junior at Toledo School for the Arts, dances the character role of Carabosse, the evil fairy who places the spell on Aurora.
Playing the bad guy has been good training, she said.
"I am used to doing pretty ballet, but this role allows me to draw from other styles. The movements are sharper, more fierce than classical ballet. That lets me use moves from jazz, hip-hop, tap, and other styles that I know."
With such an individualized personality to portray, Alexa has worked to discover Carabosse's motivations through the company rehearsals. The eclectic Burgoine has encouraged her to draw from a broad range of physicality.
The men are also broadly committed across the production. Twenty-six-year-old Wayde Winter, a four-year Toledo Ballet veteran, takes on a different role in each act, including Puss and Boots opposite Lemons.
Audiences familiar with the Sleeping Beauty set down by the Brothers Grimm in the early 1800s and the popular 1959 Disney cartoon will recognize elements of both in Tchaikovsky's version.
The legend has been told in many versions and across centuries. Some versions were brutally violent. Others - like that of the Walkure Brunnhilde, who sleeps guarded by a ring of fire - are deeply symbolic. Tchaikovsky's version looks merely to entertain.
What the Grimm brothers did through words, Tchaikovsky does through music. Major characters and events are developed with specific musical themes. A gentle storybook ending, complete with a panoply of storybook figures, overshadows any moral lessons.
Here is a brief synopsis:
The ballet opens with the christening of the princess Aurora. A bevy of good fairies bestow their various gifts, but are interrupted by the arrival of the malicious Carabosse, who, angered at having received no invitation, condemns Aurora to die after pricking her finger on a spindle.
The Lilac Fairy intercedes. She cannot entirely undo the spell, but she weakens it. Aurora will prick her finger, but will then sleep for 100 years. She will awaken under true love's kiss.
Everything happens just so, and the ballet concludes with the couple's wedding.
On the guest list are White Cat with Puss in Boots, Red Riding Hood and Wolf, and a trio of precious "metals" - Gold, Diamond, and Silver.
All entertain with their dances. In fact, the wedding itself is little more than a setup for the many solos, pas de deux, and other divertissements that were expected in all the great 19th-century story ballets.
Costumes and sets are from Cincinnati Ballet, where Burgoine, who was formerly that company's artistic director, produced Sleeping Beauty eight years ago.
The Lilac Fairy is danced by Toledo's Ballet's prima ballerina, Anne Marie Getz.
Toledo Ballet presents Sleeping Beauty at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday at the Stranahan Theater. Tickets range from $10 to $35. Information: 419-381-8851.
Contact Steven Cornelius at:firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6152.