Sleeping Beauty: The Role of a Lifetime

Dancer Harrison James gets a rare opportunity in renowned ballet
June 9, 2015 Updated: November 6, 2015

TORONTO—”Swan Lake,” “Giselle,” and “The Sleeping Beauty” are the quintessential classical ballets and getting a chance to perform in them—let alone in the leading role—has been a long-sought-after dream for many young dancers.

For New Zealand native Harrison James, 24, this dream came true when a fellow dancer in the National Ballet of Canada’s production of “The Sleeping Beauty” suffered an injury. Overnight, James was propelled from the shadow of the understudy to the spotlight when he was selected to dance both the opening and closing performances alongside the company’s renowned principal dancer Greta Hodgkinson this June.

James said he was humbled by this opportunity that he didn’t expect, and has worked hard to refocus to take on the leading role. Along the way, Hodgkinson has helped coach him into the prince worthy of the role.

“She has been really patient with me, really great with giving me instruction,” he said in an interview. “She knows exactly what she wants, so it’s easier for me to learn and pick it up. … It’s been really great.”

However, dancing the technically demanding ballet has been challenging at times, he said.

“There’s days when you can do it and you feel like you’re making progress, and there’s days when you feel like you’ve gone back a few steps. That can be really frustrating and kind of hard to deal with, but it’s getting better and better.”

Based on the classic 17th-century fairytale by Charles Perrault, “The Sleeping Beauty” was a collaboration between the great choreographer Marius Petipa and renowned composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. It premiered in 1890 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg.

Since then, it has become a staple favourite with the public, dancers, and choreographers, with various interpretations springing up across the globe.

“It’s a classic,” said James.

“Every production of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is always lavish and kind of over the top, and the sets are always gorgeous. Everyone loves a prince and a princess fairytale like that. That’s always endured.”

Nureyev’s Version

In 1966, Rudolf Nureyev, one of the most celebrated ballet artists of his time, put his own stamp on the ballet, making its debut at La Scala Opera House in Milan. In Canada, the production arrived in 1972 where it made its debut with Veronica Tennant and Nureyev in the leading role.

“I think Nureyev created a very special version because he was a superstar and wanted to dance a lot in his version. So the male dancer gets a lot of solos—especially in the second act, he barely ever leaves the stage, and it’s exhausting, but it is special because male dancers aren’t often featured in that way. So I think that sets it apart, which is really nice,” said James.

“One of my favourite scenes is the prince’s very long adagio solo that’s meant to be very introspective because he’s very lonely and wants to meet someone and fall in love, and he hasn’t yet,” he adds.

“That speaks to me, that solo. It’s beautiful, beautiful music that’s played by the principal violinist in our orchestra and he’s amazing at it. It’s quite an emotional moment, all by yourself onstage.”

Having grown up in New Zealand, James went on to study in San Francisco, later joining the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, then the Béjart Ballet Lausanne in Switzerland, and finally the National Ballet in 2013.

In Toronto, he feels like he’s found the right place to be—being at home with both the city and the ballet company, which he likens to a family.

“We’re big enough to do the best [repertoires] in the world, but also small enough to still feel like a family,” he said.

“Every dancer in the company has something amazing and special to offer. I could sit back and watch any of the dancers all day and find things that I love about them. When you’ve got a company like that it’s quite special.”

So what are James’s plans for the future?

At this point he is focusing on his dancing—and his career seems to be taking off, having just been promoted from corps de ballet to first soloist. But in time, he doesn’t know where life will take him, and throughout his dancing career he has tried to expand his horizons.

“I think it’s very easy for someone to make their ballet company their world and not explore outside of that,” he said. “It’s very easy to get lost inside it.”

As such, he has made an effort to get involved in local activities, such as volleyball tournaments, and meet people outside of the dance world.

Growing up with ballet, James experienced his share of challenges given that the dance form is not exactly a culturally acceptable path for a young boy, but he believes this attitude is changing now as dance, including ballet, is becoming more mainstream.

His advice for young men pursuing ballet? “You’re always going to have to work hard, and there’s always going to be people that are going to be nonbelievers, and that’s something that you always have to deal with. But the important thing is that you love what you’re doing, and as long as that’s there, then things will head in the right direction.”

The National Ballet of Canada’s production of “Sleeping Beauty” runs June 10–20 at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. James is scheduled perform June 10 and June 20. For more information, visit: