Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty

Directed and choreographed with a new scenario by Matthew Bourne

Written by:
Karen Weinstein
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Traditionalists, you probably will not be overjoyed at Matthew Bourne’s reworking of the classic “Sleeping Beauty.” The rest of us, however, are in for a real treat. From interpretation to technique, Act I and Act II are about as good as it gets.

This is “Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty,” not the classic version your mother took you to when you were 12. Don’t worry, Tchaikovsky’s score is mostly intact (if unfortunately recorded, not live); the story is mostly there with the distressed King and Queen, unsuccessful at producing an offspring, miraculously being given a baby girl; there are fairies; there are parents not acting properly grateful so the baby is cursed to fall asleep on her 21st birthday, to be awakened 100 years later by a kiss. Unless you are a professor of folk literature, it probably will not matter much that the story has been tweaked here and there. After all, there have been many versions of the “Sleeping Beauty” story over the years. If you are a musicologist you might be a bit more distressed that there have been some adjustments to the Tchaikovsky score and some additions like a baby’s cry. As one who claims neither of those titles, I can say I was generally charmed.

Currently vampires have taken a hold on the popular imagination. Personally I can take them or leave them … preferably leave them. But they sell well with the tween and teen set. Marketing is not a bad idea. Bourne has converted Carabosse (Adam Maskell), the dark fairy who delivers baby Aurora to the royals, into a deeply sinister figure, and her son, Caradoc (also danced by Adam Maskell in this performance) into a vampire. The visuals are great. The addition to the story? Eh. But I have already let on that I am not really into vampires.

Bourne is a master of precise classical technique interspersed with infusions of contemporary movements and delivered at breakneck speed. At times the effect is reminiscent of a Ronald Searle line drawing in animation. There is movement for every beat and the well-matched dancers of his New Adventures troupe are enthusiastically up to the task. Who dances which role depends upon which performance you attend. Opening night Princess Aurora was danced by Hannah Vassallo, who apparently is weightless, very spirited, and inexhaustible. Maskell’s Carabosse and Caradoc are looming, villainous figures.

Act I is set in 1890, the year “Sleeping Beauty” debuted. Silent movie style graphics set the mood and give the audience a clue as to what Bourne is up to. All is in the gay nineties style. Baby Aurora is a spectacularly mischievous puppet expertly manipulated by the cast. That the puppet is a personification of an impish 18 month old, not a newborn, is really of no consequence: 18-month-olds are more fun. Act II takes place in 1911. The 21st birthday celebration is an Edwardian garden party animated by Tchaikovsky’s signature waltz, meticulously executed with hints of the jazz age just around the corner.  You are forgiven if you feel like dancing out into the lobby at intermission.

In Acts III and IV, director Bourne achieves the same level of movement with his dancers, but unfortunately storyteller Bourne loses his step. The more modern times of Aurora’s awakening in 2011, or the wedding yesterday, while still being entertaining as dance, lack the clever juxtaposition of era and material seen earlier. Here too is where the figure of vampire adds little to the story, which simply wanders.

Fortunately Acts I and II are such confection that a viewer can simply sit back and enjoy the masterful level of dance for the final two acts. Perhaps a 100-year nap is just a hard sell in 2013.

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