What do heroin, fish soup, and fairy godmothers have in common? They are all ingredients in choreographer Mats Ek’s reinvention of the ballet Sleeping Beauty, currently being performed through the end of October with Les Grands Ballet Canadiens de Montréal.

Vanesa GR Montoya © John Hall / Les Grands Ballets, Montréal
Vanesa GR Montoya
© John Hall / Les Grands Ballets, Montréal

Though the Sleeping Beauty we know today exists in many versions, the scenario is rarely changed significantly. However, Ek’s production, which premièred in Hamburg in 1996, re-imagines the fairy tale in a modern setting. Princess Aurora is a rebellious teenager who defies her privileged life to pursue a love affair with a heroin junkie, replacing the spinning wheel that originally sends her into a century-long sleep with a syringe.

While Ek’s conceit could easily transform the ballet into an over-the-top eye-roller, it successfully carries the production through from start to finish without ever becoming gimmicky. Though it comes with a “not for young children” warning attached due to its “adult” nature, the five- and seven-year-olds sitting next to me with their grandmother never batted an eye. Even the most suggestive moments of the production are only that: mere suggestions of what, in other hands, could be quite graphic, trashy, and overdone. As a result, Ek is able to transform a ballet which can seem hackneyed and saccharine into a work that is relevant and emotionally engaging.

The ballet begins before the title character is born, shifting focus to Queen Silvia and King Florestan, danced by Mahomi Endoh and Jérémy Galdeano respectively. By emphasizing their innocent love and desire to have a child, their relationship serves as a direct foil to the abusive relationship that later consumes their daughter. Ek duplicates some of the choreography used for the father and mother in the prologue during Act III, for their daughter and the prince who “rescues” her. We learn, however, that even a prince’s magical kiss cannot redeem her of her dark past, and Ek’s fairy tale does not end “happily ever after”.

Four fairies welcome the newborn Princess Aurora into the world disguised as nurses in the delivery room. Vanesa G.R. Montoya, as the Gold Fairy, acted as head nurse and mistress of ceremonies for the remainder of the performance. Her personality sparkled more than her gold lame costume and gold wig. Montoya was well supported by Renata Commisso, as the Silver Fairy. Sahra Maira and Chisato Ide, as the Emerald Fairy and Ruby Fairy, were charming in their Act II solos.

Carabosse, danced by Hervé Courtain, enters the action as a diabolical doctor, who “curses” Aurora with a syringe, foreshadowing her heroin addiction that develops in Act II. Later, Carabosse reappears as Aurora’s junkie lover, clad in black, drop-crotch pants, a purple mesh top, and purple sneakers to match – an outfit you could almost see in Montreal’s Mile End today.

When we finally meet Aurora as a teenager, in Act II, she is a spoiled and antisocial. Dancer Valentine Legat traversed a range of styles that the role demands, from homages to classical style epitomized by Marius Petipa’s original choreography for Sleeping Beauty, to more modern styles that at times bordered on slapstick.

Prince Désiré, danced by Robert Deskins, is hardly permitted to truly dance at all until Act III, when he is finally united with Aurora. While there is no true grand pas de deux in the entire production, when Deskins finally dances at the end of the ballet, his obvious talent and enthusiasm for his craft leave us wishing we could see more.

The aforementioned soloists were joined by a talented and diverse corps de ballet, which was used sparingly, in contrast with the original scenario, which includes many entrées merely for the sake of spectacle. Because Ek strips away the trappings of grand ballet and many of the ensemble dances that come with it, the audience is able to focus on the main characters and enjoy the talents of individual dancers. Frequently, soloists appear on stage alone or in small groups, rather than drowning in a sea of tulle tutus.

The dark turn the retelling takes is nicely balanced with more than occasional splashes of humor. At times, characters speak – or shout – to the audience in both English and French. One of the most capricious moments is when Jean-Sébastien Couture, playing the cook, arrives on stag with a real dead fish, which he prepares for a stew before our very eyes. He explains the recipe loudly over top of Tchaikovsky, who merely provides a underscoring for his monologue.

While Ek’s intent, clearly, is not to dazzle his audience with dozens of pirouettes, the production’s conceit was more memorable than much of the choreography itself. Still, this production of Sleeping Beauty is not to be missed for anyone able to attend the revival at Les Grands Ballets.