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Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty

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Reworking of Tchaikovsky's classic ballet.

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      24.02.2013 16:13
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      A superbly realised update of a classic ballet which has improved it beyond recognition

      Some years ago, dancer-turned-choreographer Matthew Bourne began his choreographical career first with his interpretation of The Nutcracker, rapidly followed by his award-winning masterpiece, Swan Lake, a reinterpretation of the great classic with all male swans. With both those ballets using musical scores composed by Russian composer Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky, it seemed a natural progression to complete the trilogy with Sleeping Beauty, Tchaikovsky's third ballet score. The completed ballet debuted to great critical acclaim and has since been touring the UK.

      I haven't seen Matthew Bourne's version of the Nutcracker but I was absolutely blown away by his updated Swan Lake which I was lucky enough to see with Adam Cooper in the role of the swan. For Christmas last year my daughter bought me tickets for Sleeping Beauty and after several weeks of eager anticipation (at least on my part) we went to see it last week at the New Victoria Theatre in Woking.

      Matthew Bourne formed his own dance company, New Adventures, to perform and film his productions. The company includes dancers from both the ballet and contemporary dance worlds in its ranks and although his productions are generally referred to as ballets they are, in fact, more accurately described as fusions of classical ballet and contemporary dance as they encompass both genres.

      This version of Sleeping Beauty, although using Tchaikovsky's musical score, doesn't closely follow the story of the original ballet. Instead Matthew Bourne looked to early sources of the tale both Perault's original, written at the end of the seventeenth century and the Brothers Grimm's re-imagining in 1812 as well as Walt Disney's later film version from the mid-twentieth century and he has brought it right up to date.

      Like all good fairy tales, this ballet begins with a 'Once upon and time' in the year 1890 and ends roughly 120 years later with 'and they all lived happily ever after' but some of what comes in between has been tweaked a little. Matthew Bourne claims, and I tend to agree, that the original ballet was fairly unimaginative and was limited in that Princess Aurora falls asleep almost as soon as she's fallen in love with the prince and it's never properly explained how he managed to be around to wake her with his kiss some hundred years later. Also, the instrument of Aurora's long sleep, the evil Carabosse, isn't given as much coverage in the story as maybe he warrants. Matthew Bourne has solved these problems with a nod to the current fascination with all things vampire and paranormal and with the inclusion of a couple of new characters, one being that of Caradoc, Carabosse's son who is out to exact his revenge on the treatment of his mother.


      Plot:

      Once upon a time there was a King and Queen who had not been blessed with a child. They sought the help of the dark side in the shape of the witch/fairy Carabosse and eventually their daughter, Princess Aurora was born. All the fairies blessed Aurora with their gifts of beauty, happiness, generosity and the like but Carabosse was never thanked for her part in bringing about Aurora's birth and, not surprisingly, took offense and ultimately her revenge by cursing the child to be pricked by a spindle and fall into a long sleep which could only be broken by a kiss from her true love. Although Aurora grows to womanhood in a very protected environment by the time of her coming-of-age party, Carabosse is dead and her parents think that the threat has gone. However, Carabosse's son, Caradoc, comes to the party and exacts revenge on behalf of his mother......


      The Music:
      This is the first ballet I've ever attended without an orchestra. This has a soundtrack instead coupled with updates on the story projected onto the curtain. To begin with I was unsure whether this would work but it does. It actually allows the score to be adjusted to fit into this new ballet concept and is especially effective when introducing non-musical sounds such as thunder, a baby's cry and where deep resonant sounds are needed to symbolise unearthly noises not easily reproduced by musical instruments.


      The cast:

      The company has 24 cast members and unusually there are no specific principal dancers as such and certainly no high profile names from the world of dance. This is very much an ensemble piece and, in fact, the principal roles are shared by several dancers which has the advantage of keeping the piece fresh for every new audience.

      One of the cast members doesn't even get a credit and that is the baby Princess Aurora which takes the form of a wonderfully realistic puppet. The puppet crawls, sits and in one instance, climbs in a beautifully choreographed imitation of a baby. This was a very clever device which has the audience laughing at some of her antics.


      The costumes:

      The costume and set designer, Lez Brotherson has collaborated with Matthew Bourne on all his productions and brings great originality to his designs. The ballet is in four acts set in 1890, 1910, and the present day so many of the costumes begin with a very Edwardian look. Those for the paranormal beings make use of lots of denim, velvet and filmy gauzes all combining into a wonderfully imaginative gothic look. Although Caradoc's costume is very much in the style of your run-of-the-mill vampire, his evil henchmen in the present day are clothed in hoodies so that it's impossible to see much of their faces other than that they are hideous. It's amazing how sinister a hoody can look!

      The best and most sumptuous costumes are saved until almost the end for the vampire ballroom scene with everyone wearing red and black with lighting to match. It was spectacularly dramatic.


      The sets:

      These were also designed by Lez Brotherson and although simplistic in design, they were very effective. The woodland scenes were particularly good with ghostly silver birch tree trunks and a huge luminous moon with dry ice providing just the right amount of swirling mist.


      My overall impressions:

      From the beginning when 'Once upon a time' is projected onto the curtain until the final 'And they all lived happily ever after' I was in dance heaven. This is a beautifully modernised and interpreted version of a pretty mundane classic ballet and it's hard to pick any faults with it. Some of the innovations introduced into the ballet, such as the clever puppetry and a moving stage were used to great effect, making the whole production as far removed from the accepted view of classical ballet as it's possible to be with not a single tutu in sight and no dancer en pointe at any time.
      Although I didn't have any problems following the story, my daughter said there were moments in the ballet when she was confused. I think this is because there are occasions when mime is used but if she'd bothered to read the programme any confusion would have been removed as everything is perfectly explained there and updates to the story are given throughout the performance with text projected onto the curtain before each act.

      As I said earlier, this is very much an ensemble piece so I don't really want to single out any one dancer for special mention other than to say that on the night we attended the entire company brought a wonderful sense of youthful joie de vivre to their parts and the dancers involved in the special set pieces such as the early scene with the fairies bringing their gifts to Aurora and the vampire ball were both beautifully danced with many of the individual performances receiving audience applause. The end of the performance resulted in about seven well deserved curtain calls!

      The ballet is still touring the UK before returning to the West End and if you get a chance to see it, you won't be disappointed, though you should expect to pay around £30 for the cheapest tickets. Our tickets for the Royal Circle cost £37.90 but costs may vary from venue to venue.

      I couldn't go so far as to say that Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty is as good as his version of Swan Lake, which was absolutely stunning, but it's thoroughly enjoyable, visually appealing and dramatic and, despite the darker elements introduced into the story, it's suitable for all the family.

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