The genius hailed by The New Yorker as “the most popular choreographer of theatrical dance in the Western World” wakes up a ballet classic in Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, a Great Performances presentation airing tonight on many PBS affiliates (be sure to check listings in your area).
Bourne explains during the two brief but illuminating interview segments that bookend this Sleeping Beauty that his family didn’t listen to much classical music when he was growing up. As in his earlier productions of the two other Tchaikovsky dance masterworks – The Nutcracker, which Bourne set in a grim Dickensian orphanage, and Swan Lake, which featured an all-male corps de ballet of swans – Bourne’s principal focus is on telling a story that is dramatically arresting while still satisfying fans of the piece in its traditional form.
When he sized up the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, which dates from the 14th century, Bourne immediately noticed that, in terms of its love story, the yarn was a resounding flop.
“This prince kisses her and wakes her up, she looks at him, and next thing you know, they’re getting married, someone she’s never even met,” Bourne says. “You don’t really feel anything at all.”
Instead of using the traditional fairy-tale period setting, Bourne opens his production of Sleeping Beauty in London’s Victorian era, circa 1890 (the year of the ballet’s premiere). In the first act, we encounter the rambunctious baby Princess Aurora in the form of an intricately designed marionette that causes the palace staff endless headaches. In the next act, when we meet the 21-year-old Aurora (Hannah Vassallo), she’s a spirited, almost tomboyish young woman who has flouted convention and fallen in love with Leo (Dominic North), the royal gardener. Obviously, that enhances the love-story element in the ballet, but it presented Bourne with another conundrum: If Aurora has to sleep for 100 years, what happens to poor Leo?
“Aurora has fallen in love with someone who then has the problem of trying to stay alive for her when she wakes up,” Bourne says of his and Leo’s dilemma.
Happily, as it turns out, the production’s setting roughly coincided with London’s obsession with Gothic literature (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for example, was written in 1897), and Bourne found his audacious solution while watching HBO’s True Blood. Instead of pretty ladies in pastel tutus, the good fairies of Sleeping Beauty would be a family of benign vampires in elegant yet slightly moldering garments, led by the powerful Count Lilac (Christopher Marney). That concept also gave Leo a poignant way to demonstrate his love for Aurora, by surrendering his very mortality in order to stay by her side.
Like all of his other productions, Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty is jam-packed with fantastic stage images, such as the stormy entrance of the dark fairy Carabosse (Adam Maskell) and her minions, who look like one of the Furies crossed with a satyr. When she pronounces her curse on the baby Aurora, her dark prophecy is mimed by an Aurora double with a blank, mannequin-like face. It’s chillingly effective, as is the moment in the second act when Carabosse’s vengeful son, Caradoc (Maskell again), activates the curse not with the tainted spindle of a spinning wheel, but via a thorn on a black rose that was his late mother’s favored calling card.
In traditional productions of Sleeping Beauty, once the prince has awakened his sleeping beauty, the story effectively is over, apart from another half hour or so of celebratory dances at the royal wedding. Bourne, however, interjects yet another plot twist that sends the narrative in a totally unexpected direction and keeps the suspense going almost until the very end of the ballet.
A press release from Great Performances describes Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty as “a gothic fairy tale for all ages,” and that’s largely true. Bourne’s earlier productions of, say, The Car Man (adapted from Bizet’s opera Carmen) and Swan Lake may have raised some eyebrows with their unmistakable currents of homoeroticism, but there’s nothing in this Sleeping Beauty to frighten the horses or, more pertinently, parents of youngsters. Very small fry who know and love the traditional Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, however, probably will be very confused by many of Bourne’s somewhat eccentric narrative changes.
There’s no denying, though, that Bourne has given one of Tchaikovsky’s most popular ballets a welcome dose of creative caffeine. I won’t point out all the ingenious little character touches this master choreographer comes up with, but I have to mention a moment that occurs early in Act Three, set in contemporary (2011) London. The massive, locked iron gates surrounding Aurora’s palace have become a tourist destination, and as guidebook-toting visitors take selfies for their Instagram pages, a young woman tenderly sticks a commemorative rose into the metal bars. As she does so, she pricks her finger and fairly swoons, overcome by the cosmic romantic significance of the accident. It’s a tiny moment that’s both funny and touching.
I can’t imagine what it must be like to live in Matthew Bourne’s head, which apparently is the scene of constant and boundless creativity. I’m just glad that every now and then I get to visit there.