Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty is at Milton Keynes Theatre this week and the innovative choreographer has added some bite to the ballet classic.
Matthew Bourne made his name with bold re-imaginings of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker (his was set in an orphanage and titled Nutcracker!) and Swan Lake (with a mesmerising ensemble of male swans). Seventeen years after the premiere of Swan Lake, Bourne’s company, New Adventures, is completing the Tchaikovsky trilogy with Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, a gothic interpretation of the Charles Perrault fairy tale.
Storytellers and choreographers have adapted the potent plot before. Versions of the story explore the themes of good versus evil, the beauty of youth and transformation, the power of evil curses and the all-pervading idea of love conquering all. Walt Disney’s 1959 film sharpened the original narrative to create more of an ongoing love story. Somewhat more controversially, in 1985, avant-garde Swedish choreographer Mats Ek reimagined Aurora as a drug addict, with a syringe causing her pricked finger.
In Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, we still encounter the poisoned rose thorn that audiences expect. But the love story turns supernatural as vampires feature in the scenario.
Currently undergoing something of a reincarnation – influenced by cult followers of Twilight and True Blood – the inclusion of these fanged creatures (who have a monopoly on eternal life) makes an audience question what they perceive as “natural”. Ballet has always embraced fairies (around the time of the original Sleeping Beauty’s premiere in 1890, well over fifty percent of the population would have agreed that they believed in fairies) so Bourne has cleverly played the zeitgeist to his advantage.
The story of Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty begins in 1890, a timely reference to the original masterpiece by choreographer Marius Petipa and composer Tchaikovsky. Taking on these classic works is a huge undertaking and The Sleeping Beauty in particular has a score in which every note is tailored to exquisite, technically challenging ballet technique (balletomanes can literally hear the pointe work in the music). Still, Bourne is renowned for strong storytelling and creation of characters – drama is just as important as, if not more important than, the movement alone.
Never before have I – a seasoned fan of classical ballet who particularly loves The Sleeping Beauty – considered the temporality of the original ballet (a century passes while the princess sleeps, but nothing has changed upon her reawakening). Yet Bourne introduces a real contrast between acts, using the passage of time to inspire the movement, motivate characters and rationalise the story.
When the curtain is lifted, we learn that King Benedict and Queen Eleanor were so desperate for a child that they sought help from an evil fairy, Carabosse. However, once the baby girl was born, they failed to show enough gratitude. Carabosse seeks revenge with an evil curse that will see the Princess Aurora die on her 21st birthday.
The scene-stealing baby Aurora is an infant born into the Victorian era who starts to develop a wilful, ungovernable personality from infancy. In the classical ballet, the Prologue is all about the baby Royal – yet we do not see her until she comes of age. Bourne has come up with an intriguing way of making the normally unseen baby the centre our attention with an animated and incredibly lifelike puppet. Baby Aurora is amazingly expressive and threatens to upstage the rest of the cast throughout the first act. Every joint is articulated and closely controlled by dancers who work together to create the body language of the infant – making her crawl, cry and even climb.
For those familiar with the ballet, there is a well-played nod to Petipa’s choreography when the fairies bestow their gifts on the child. However, the entertaining solos still maintain Bourne’s distinctive contemporary style.
My only (tiny) criticism is that the black tights and black ballet slippers worn by the fairies unfortunately render their feet close to invisible at times. Admittedly, this is probably only a problem for a detail-oriented dance minority in the audience, but it is still something to note.
Nonetheless, the sets, costumes and lighting by Tony award-winning designers Lez Brotherston and Paule Constable bring Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty to life. From the imposing Corinthian columns and luxurious curtains dressing the royal palace to the gloomy lighting and cunning use of a moving pavement, these artists have created a production that oozes style.
The fluid staging used for travelling across periods of time within the set is afforded to the production by travelators. This stage technique mimics a Fred Astaire number in the 1946 MGM film Ziegfield Follies and means that the fairies need not bourrée en pointe to create the impression of gliding – they can instead strike a pose while being whisked along a moving platform.
Leading the fairies is Count Lilac (King of the Fairies). He takes the place of the conventional, good-natured Lilac Fairy – counteracting the curse with a spell to make the princess fall asleep for 100 years. Casting male dancers in roles traditionally played by women is one of Bourne’s favourite theatrical devices and it allows him to explore characters from a different perspective.
Aurora grows up throughout the strict Edwardian era, becoming increasingly independent and portrayed as a feisty force of nature, trapped within the formal confines of the palace. Our princess is happier barefoot than living the prim and proper life of a young Royal, illustrated through her reluctance to wear smart boots and her Isadora Duncan-inspired loose hair and carefree movements.
Her 21st birthday celebrations are held in 1911, in the palace gardens. This party scene includes a tennis quartet with subtle reference to Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes (echoing the Edwardian style seen in Nijinsky’s 1913 ballet Jeux).
Royal Gamekeeper Leo has captured Aurora’s attentions but the sinister Caradoc – son of the now deceased Evil Fairy Carabosse, intent on ensuring his mother’s curse comes true – has also caught her eye. Caradoc is a glamorous, dark role created by Bourne for his production. This mysterious, seemingly noble stranger appears among the party-goers and dances with Aurora, slipping a poisoned rose into Leo’s wheelbarrow when no one is looking.
Choreographically, I particularly enjoyed the sneaky rendezvous that Aurora shares with Leo after the party. They dance a beautiful pas de deux, which incorporates a park bench and roses.
Of course, the inevitable happens and Aurora pricks her finger on the poisoned rose stem. She falls into a deep sleep, leaving Leo to face a future without her. Count Lilac intervenes, granting the young gamekeeper immortality (in the tried-and-tested vampire tradition of sinking his sharp teeth into Leo’s jugular).
Aurora finds herself pursued through the decades by Caradoc, trapped in the land of the sleepwalkers. Unbeknown to her, the now immortal Leo has also been able to journey through time to reunite with his love in the contemporary age. But will his efforts be in “vein”?
New Adventures celebrated its 25th anniversary last year and the cast of just seventeen dancers ensure that this production is an unforgettable theatrical experience. An intoxicating mix of dance, drama and spectacle, Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty is an unstoppable love story that time travels through the years.
*Photography courtesy of New Adventures.
Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty continues at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 2 February 2013.
Update 18 January 2023: Read my review of Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty tenth-anniversary revival.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.