“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

MOVIE: The Hobbit

Unknown“THE HOBBIT”, PETER Jackson’s return to Middle Earth is an extraordinary display of a boundless visual imagination. There are some scenes, especially in the limitless depths of the dwarf kingdom, Erebor, that are quite breath-taking. And even as his camera swoops over the grand lush beauty of New Zealand, plunging into the ever-summer prettiness of Bilbo Baggins’ neighbourhood or tracking the path of the dread Orcs, you marvel at the immersive spectacle of it all. Even his use of 3D, which in lesser hands can be a pain in the ass, provides moments of pure pleasure. At one point, as the fearless team of dwarfs wander through one of the many forests, a bird flitters into view and seemingly hovers in the middle of the cinema.

The story, in a nutshell: Gandalf recruits Bilbo to join a troop of dwarfs who are seeking to recapture their gold-surfeited kingdom, destroyed many decades ago by a fire breathing, gold loving dragon. This is the story of their getting there, or at least, in this first pass, the story of actually getting close enough to see it way off in the hazy blue distance.

As it did in the “Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring”, the movie starts on a tame enough, somewhat boring note. But as soon as Gandalf (Ian McKellen back in the role), Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Thorin (the king of the dwarfs – Richard Armitage) and the troop of dwarfs head off on their picaresque adventure, the action and the adrenaline pick up. And there is a lot of action. Indeed, apart from a few incongruous episodes of silly Disney cartoon-like humor, “The Hobbit” is really one long chase sequence told with such giddy brio that the long running time (almost three hours) zipped along effortlessly. So far, so good.


Mr Jackson devotes so much of his time and energy to creating the tangibly real world of Middle Earth that he seems to have forgotten about character. Freeman struggles along trying to invest Bilbo with a nice balance of awe shucks ordinariness along with some impressive sword play, but Thorin and his band of dwarfs are no really more than a faceless and interchangeable horde of hirsute adventurers. Not unlike the Orcs really, apart from the hair. There’s a sort of crude division for us simple-minded cinema folk. Here be good guys (the dwarfs) who play lots of boyish pranks; and here be bad guys with bad teeth and even worse attitudes (the Orca and Goblins and Wrags).

Only the magnificent Andy Serkis as Gollum lifts the story-line above PS3. The argumentative, schizophrenic, whining, dangerous, sympathetic, nasty creature in possession of “his precious” – the famous ring – actually is the one that introduces the humanity into the film. At one moment as – an invisible – Bilbo raises his sword to kill Gollum, we’re both rooting for his death and hoping that he’s spared.

Not a sentiment I felt about any of the rest of the cast.

That said, it’s a marvelously watchable movie. I just wish Mr. Jackson had a good friend who was an editor, and who could offer him the wise counsel both about cutting down the length (this story isn’t worth six more hours) and framing the action around some sort of central idea. You really do get the feeling that Jackson is simply unfolding a catalog of adventures (being chased by Orcs is one thing, but rocks that fight? Does that have any real bearing on the story?) in search of a heartbeat.

MOVIE: Life of Pi


WE TELL STORIES as one way of interpreting and making sense of a complex and irrational world. Pretty much every religion is founded on this basis. “Life of Pi” – a movie of incandescently ethereal beauty – is about story telling. It tells the story of a young Hindu, Catholic, Moslem boy who manages to survive physically and psychologically the traumatic effects of a shipwreck in which his entire family – his entire past – is eradicated.

It is on one level a story about the role of faith as fundamental to life; on another level, it’s about faith as a – perhaps necessary – delusion.

Pi – or Piscene Patel – is en route on a huge freighter with his family and a zoo of animals from Pondicherry, India, to Canada, where they plan to start a new life. However, a violent storms sinks the boat and Pi, along with a hyena, a zebra, a female orangutan and a Bengal tiger (his own Noah’s ark of God-assisted survival) survive the wreck. Eventually, it’s just him and the tiger left on the limitless and lonely Pacific ocean. They map out their own territories (Pi in a sense becomes the animal when he pees – there are a lot of school-yard jokes against the young Pi as pissing about  – on his side of the boat) and live off the bounty of this ocean. They do this in ways that suggest that the ocean is itself caring for them: at a point of starving desperation, flying fish, like so many gossamer winged angels miraculously appear to save them; storms bring not so much danger as fresh water; at another crucial point, they drift into an uncharted island whose fauna both feeds them and also feeds off those hapless enough to linger there – Pi discovers a human tooth enfolded in one of the flowers there.

But that’s just one story. Pi admits to the young novelist (another story teller) to whom he is narrating his tale, that this fantastical story of survival was rejected by the Japanese insurers of the vessel. So, he told them another – a more gruesome one where the animals are replaced by people; one in which his mother has been cannibalized for survival.

The latter story is far too horrible to live with. That way lies madness. That way, of course, lies the truth. The life of Pi is Pi’s fabrication of a life designed to protect him from the disturbing realities of the truth, just as religion does.

But it’s not as one dimensional as that: Pi’s story is the one we all want to believe in. It’s fascinating, magical, amazing, death-defying…even if untrue. His life – or at least the 228 days he spends on the ocean – is simply grim and sordid. Unlike his fabrication, the reality offers us no values we can identify with or buy into. It’s just, well, life.

We need our storytellers.

The movie suggests that surviving life needs, at some level, belief and faith in something.

In “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, John Ford’s seminal film about legend making, Jimmy Stewart – the much respected town sheriff and man of peace, finds that he must confront Lee Marvin, the gunslinger. Stewart has never drawn a gun before, but it’s his job and a man has to do what a man has to do. He kills Marvin in a showdown and is feted as a hero – justification in the belief that right will win out over wrong. Except Stewart didn’t kill Marvin; John Wayne was hidden on a roof and took Marvin out with a single bullet. When Stewart finds out, he insists on telling the towns-folk, but John Wayne holds him back. “When the legend meets the reality,” he says, “tell the legend.”

“Life of Pi” is about the power of legend and it’s curative values – as offering a higher truth than sordid reality and its nihilism. Ang Lee, who also gave us the wondrous “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and the tender romance of “Brokeback Mountain” has crafted an absolute Oscar contender in this one (best adapted screen play maybe – David Magee of “Finding Neverland” and Yann Martel – and best cinematography – Claudio Miranda of “…Benjamin Button”).


MOVIES: The English Patient


I saw “The English patient” again recently and was delighted to rediscover how wonderful a movie it is. It’s a story set in (the deserts of) Egypt and Libya in the period just before and up to the end of World War II. It centers of the love affair between Count Laszlo de Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), a Hungarian map maker with the Royal Geographical Society and Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), who with her husband, Geoffrey (the perennially cuckolded) Colin Firth had joined the cartographers on one of their expeditions.

The story unfolds through a series of flashbacks, to the now dying, broken-hearted Almasy who, having been shot down by Germans lies horribly burned and disfigured, in a British medical unit in Italy. He pretends to have lost his memory and (having been branded a German spy) conveniently cannot remember his name. He is just the –anonymous- English patient. Hana (Juliette Binoche), his French Canadian nurse, has taken pity on his agony from being moved around and sequesters them both in a deserted monastery even as her troop trundles onward to Florence. And it is there that this man without a face, without a name, without a memory, remembers and recounts the story of his love.

That Almasy is a cartographer is significant. His job is to map boundaries and locations; to circumscribe the perimeters of countries and yet he and Katherine share the impossible romance of living a borderless life – a pre-war romantic ideal that dies with the war. “We die rich with lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have entered and swum up like rivers…” she writes in her diary as she lies dying in a cave where Almasy has left her to find help. “…we’re the real countries, not the boundaries drawn on maps, the names of powerful men…an earth without maps”

Is this a naïve fantasy or the reality of love? For really, the world is a world of maps; and the war breaks into this snug cocoon. Almasy’s foreign sounding name creates immediate suspicions and he is incarcerated by the English who label him Fritz the German. In order to rescue Katherine in her cave, he escapes and exchanges his maps – his borders – to the Germans for an aircraft. The Hungarian count who sees himself as a borderless mapmaker is branded German by the English and is finally shot down by the Germans who assume he’s English. It is the logic of the war: pick a side and kill the others.

But love will out; Minghella offers us a story that by juxtaposing the ugliness and brutality of the war with the sudden and unexpected flowering of love and passion, we are offered glimpses of the borderlessness of love in this world governed by borders. The idea is played out also with Hana, who has (literally) cloistered herself with Almasy in an attempt to escape from the horror of the death all around her (her lover and one of her best friends have suddenly been killed). But there, in the cloister with this dying man, she befriends a Sikh bomb expert, Kip (Naveen Andrews, of “Lost” fame) and an unexpected flame is kindled between the two of them.

We’re pointedly reminded of the racial/national/religious gulf between these two. She a white Christian French Canadian; he a black Sikh, turbaned Indian.  But their romance transcends these petty barriers (the same petty barriers at war with each other on the global stage). At one point, Kip eulogizes a friend of his who has suddenly been killed: “he never once asked me if I could spin the ball at cricket, the Karma Sutra…”

Minghella emphasizes the parallels in the two (essentially doomed) relationships. Almasy and Katheine fall in love in a cave (where she dies) in the presence of magical prehistoric drawings of people who seem to be swimming (there in the middle of the desert…talk about an image of borderlessness!). So too Kip and Hana fall in love in a darkened church where Kip swings Hana around from wall to wall to marvel at the Renaissance murals painted there. They flicker into life, as did the prehistoric paintings, as does their love. Iconic beauty and passions amidst the darkness of war.