Dazzling, mesmeric, unforgettable. Sleeping Beauty is given a dark twist.
Sleeping Beauty, ‘the pinnacle of classical ballet form and grandeur’. Not for Matthew Bourne. Bourne instead has put a completely alternative twist on the ballet we all know and love, upturning it into a gothic, zealous, but beautiful romance.
During those two hours, ten minutes I witnessed a mesmerising, passion-fuelled performance with spectacular creative flair. Stunning dancing, vivid colour, and Tchaikovsky’s beautifully traditional music slotted together so brilliantly, creating a powerful slick ballet.
The familiarity of the music worked. Our own familiarity however was placed into disarray by the unfamiliar story, with Bourne ensuring his audience kept actively engaged by constantly disturbing our expectations.
Bourne has now completed a trio of Tchaikovsky’s ballets after becoming inspired when visiting the composer’s bedroom and sensing that ‘it was a sign’ that he should make Sleeping Beauty his next project. From this ‘A Gothic Romance’ was born.
The music makes a performance and Bourne describes this score as dictating ‘the action and add[ing] emotion, drama and character. In fact it becomes the script’. No words are needed to tell the story, the lyrical movements, alongside the style and tempo of the music are all that is needed. It is remarkable how Bourne’s contemporary production can still use the traditional, classic score in a completely unique way. His ballet begins in 1890 and travels through to the present day, with the final act called ‘Last Night’. This push into modernity is what helps audiences relate more easily; one example being when a group of dancers starts to take selfies outside the palace gates. Bourne describes the transition of dance into the modern day as ‘boldly confrontational, confident, sensual and dangerous’ — themes that arguably symbolise the dramatic cultural movements in today’s society.
The ballet incorporates sections of comedy, particularly at the beginning with a puppet of baby Aurora crawling across the stage and scrambling up the curtains, while causing utter mischief and quite a few laughs for the audience. This detail of developing Aurora assisted the character and helped capture the audience’s hearts. Also, instead of waiting until the final act to see her and her prince together, their story was threaded into the ballet right from the beginning when a young Aurora falls in love with the palace gardener. Their love is portrayed through some cheeky, humorous routines, highlighting the rebelliousness of young sweethearts. As depicted through the dancing, Bourne’s Aurora is ‘a feisty, nature-loving child. Happier running through the forest barefoot than [living] the stuffy life of a Princess’.
Ashley Shaw (Aurora) undertook this role perfectly. Her dancing was absolutely immaculate, one of the best dancers I have ever seen in terms of her musicality, her lines and technique. Her love for the art resolutely shone through. Dancing the entire show barefoot, her strength and the physicality of the role were made wholly apparent. Her movements were graceful amidst the mix of ballet styles cleverly choreographed.
Bourne wanted his Aurora to represent the modern woman and described our ‘heroine’s personality and a free and spirited dance style [as] inspired by Isadora Duncan’. Duncan, was an American dancer whose philosophy of dance steered towards natural, free-flowing movements, connecting with emotions rather than strict technique. She once said, ‘I spent long days and nights in the studio seeking that dance which might be the divine expression of the human spirit through the medium of the body’s movement’. Her style was feminine and her story was told through her dancing — very much like Bourne’s Aurora.
As well as building Aurora’s character, Bourne envisioned a whole new narrative for the evil fairy Carabosse through her loyal, equally daunting son, Caradoc. Just with his mere presence, uneasiness reverberated through the audience and the gothic traits of his performance were crystallised. The introduction of vampires forced connotations of danger, power, strength, domination, and eternal life to be put to the forefront. Bourne explains his use of vampires as purely an ‘important plot device’. Count Lilac, the vampire King of the fairies and all the other fairies shone through their solos with uniqueness, displaying some intricate footwork and stunning costumes.
Speaking of costumes, as well as the set and staging, that demands its own praise. The stage transitioned from bare and minimalist, to busy and exciting. The lighting was perfectly coordinated to shift between the changing moods of luminescence and happiness, darkness and mystery, strength and danger, beauty and sensuousness, peace, and drama. It is enchanting how much lighting can change the whole atmosphere of a dance. The floor escalator at the back of the stage was especially effective for creating that magical, mystifying element to the production. It produced the impression that the fairies were flying when stepping into arabesque, drifting delicately through the breeze. Similarly, the beautifully constructed land of the sleepwalkers with its array of tree trunks adorned with fairy lights and lanterns, created an unforgettable picture.
Everything was directed with such precise detail that it ensured an absolutely dazzling performance, one hundred per cent worthy of that exhausting applause.
New Adventures dance company, you are stunning. And Sir Matthew Bourne, take a bow. Thank you.