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New Adventures

Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty

by David Mead

December 12, 2012 -- Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, UK

Many choreographers have reinterpreted Petipa’s “The Sleeping Beauty” over the years, and as the title suggests, this is very much Matthew Bourne’s version rather than the original. Although he has tweaked both the story and the music, significantly in places, it has to be said that this is one of the more coherent reworkings. As a piece of narrative it is far more interesting than the original ballet, which for all its wonderful dance is not exactly packed with drama, and visually it is an absolute delight. From a purely dance perspective, however, it struggles to hit the target.

Bourne’s interpretation opens in 1890, the year of the Petipa ballet’s premiere in St. Petersburg. The King and Queen have failed to produce a child, so a baby is left for them by Carabosse. In a neat twist, she is portrayed as not being initially evil or nasty, but as someone who only turned on the family when they didn’t show gratitude for her gift of a child. In a stroke of genius, Bourne has the baby Aurora come alive thanks to some marvellous rod puppetry. It crawls around the floor getting under everyone’s feet and even climbs the huge drapes. I couldn’t help feeling it also had a touch of the sinister about it; something to do with what seemed to be a slightly oversized head and eyes, maybe. The way it grinned at the fairies was quite disconcerting. Whether that was deliberate is unclear, although it made sense given her true lineage.

By the time of her 21st birthday party in 1911, Carabosse is dead. Her hurt is, though, continued by Caradoc, played by the same dancer and to who Aurora is strangely attracted, despite being chased after by altogether more attractive, if rather fresh faced, Leo, the Royal Gamekeeper. As usual, Aurora pricks her finger on the traditional rose thorn and falls asleep. Things get a tad more confused when she wakes up. Her suitor from 100 years previous has survived time by becoming a vampire, which provides an excuse for Act IV taking place in a goth-oriented night club. In a final and rather topical twist, Bourne provides the happy couple with another baby at the end.

Throughout, Bourne reinforces his reputation as an excellent storyteller. There is some help from two or three sentences projected on to the curtain, but for the most part things are perfectly clear. That’s just as well, as the programme contains not one word of synopsis.

The star turns in the production are Lez Brotherston’s magnificent designs. If he does not win an award for them something is seriously amiss. The royal residence of Act I is full of references to the mock Gothic architecture that was so popular in the late 19th-century. Sweeping forward, the Edwardian garden party setting for Act II is pure Downton Abbey. The closing in of nature on the sleeping Aurora is one of the best I’ve seen. Given all that, I’ll forgive the overly dark, black and red night club.

The dancers are pleasing. Hannah Vassallo as Aurora had a hint of Isadora Duncan about her, dancing with a delightful freedom. The rather eerie Count Lilac (The Lilac Fairy) was danced with authority by Liam Mower. He and the other fairies all had more than a hint of Tim Burton’s gothic creations. Adam Maskell was convincing as Caradoc, while Dominic North was a very innocent Leo.

The dance itself is easy on the eye. It is effective in telling the story, but is largely unexciting. Tchaikovsky’s score is packed with magical, often soaring moments, but Bourne fails to match it time and again. There are plenty of references to the Petipa, especially in the various fairy solos, but while nice to see, they served only to highlight the lack of impact of the rest of the choreography. Some of the balletic steps also struggled to gel with Bourne’s more contemporary vocabulary. Duets that should hit the emotional highs found when two people are falling for each other or are really in love turn out to be little more than playful, easy going encounters between doe-eyed youngsters. Not once did I feel a frission of excitement or a tingle down the spine.

Sadly, the music is not live; a fact of economic necessity, one assumes. A few parts of the score have been moved around and there was one section I didn’t recognise, although it fitted well. But given that it was specially recorded, it is unfortunate that some of the editing is far from seamless. One join towards the end was especially jolting.

All told, Bourne’s “Sleeping Beauty” is certainly an interesting take on the story and will please most. The Sadler’s Wells audience certainly seemed happy enough. Just don’t expect fireworks.

Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty continues at Sadler’s Wells to January 26, then tours. See for details.

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