“MATTHEW BOURNE’S “SLEEPING Beauty” at Sadler’s Wells: Fabulous.
Mr. Bourne is without doubt the pre-eminent choreographer of our day. I don’t think there’s anyone with a clearer narrative grasp, with a stronger ability to grip the audience with his story-telling skills. His “Sleeping Beauty” is – strange word to use in describing a ballet – gripping.
A brief reminder on the story-line Tchaikovsky composed to: the only daughter of the royal family, Aurora, is blessed by six fairies with the graces of wit, beauty, grace, song and probably sex appeal too. It’s the damned seventh fairy who lays a curse on her – that she’ll prick her hand on a spindle on her coming of age and die. One of the fairies softens this curse so that she won’t die – simply sleep for a hundred years. And of course a charming prince (who, by the way she’s never seen before) kisses her; she awakens and marries him and they live happily after.
Pretty dumb, huh?
Not for Bourne; he keeps the outline of the story and working – I can only say collaborating, since his choreography cleverly incorporates multiple stage tricks – closely with award winner Lez Brotherson, transforms it into his own – more credible – personal vision of sex, punishment and victory of good and love over evil.
Bourne moves away from the Disney version we all know to a version that changes fairies to sorceresses, that introduces elements of “Twilight” and that, as with all his ballets, reeks with passion.
The ballet is divided into two halves. The first half – cleverly beginning with an infant Aurora crawling about the stage, thanks to some brilliant puppeteering – is all off-whites, innocence and, as Aurora grows, budding love. It’s set in the height of the Victorian period when she falls for Leo, the royal gamekeeper. But all this virginal purity won’t last: the final dance of this first ‘movement’ is one of erotic seduction. You could say Leo put the moves on her. But as their passion is consummated, her deflowering is accompanied by the prick of a flower – a black rose – and she ‘dies’. Her petit mort accompanied by a mort of a hundred years. Oh the damage done by one little prick. Leo is distraught – how will he live as his beloved lies asleep for a hundred years? Not to worry, Count Lilac swoops in and plunges his vampiric fangs into Leo’s neck, thereby ensuring that he’ll be around a hundred year hence.
The second set begins in the modern day. The innocence of the whites now have changed to reds and blacks. What was a genteel romp on a Victorian tennis court is repeated but now it’s a red hued S&M themed night club. This is the world in which, the now no longer virginal Aurora awakes… to fight off the amorous advances of another more dashing suitor so that she can find fulfillment in the arms of her gamekeeper. Their movements become bolder, more threatening, but for Aurora who, semi-awake, resisting being fully awake sans her true love, seems to levitate languorously in the arms of her suitors.
All good dance must communicate emotion through movement. But I often find that much traditional classical ballet feels like a series of brilliant vignettes that somehow manage to add up to the semblance of a story. Matthew Bourne’s choreography bridges classical ballet, modern dance including hip hop as well as the theatre, to provide us with richly textured drama where movement takes the place of words and which as adroitly expresses character as does dialogue.
More than this, the ever-changing set design suggests not simply a sense of place but a real reflection of the emotions being played out on the stage.
It all adds up to something that’s quite spectacular