Fangs you very much, Matthew Bourne, for reimagining the classic story ballet Sleeping Beauty as a gorgeous, gothic, vampire-filled romance that substitutes brimstone for the treacle.
Not much princess-y or storybook gossamer about Mr. Bourne’s ballet—and that’s a good thing. And not just because Mr. Bourne has pretty much fileted Sleeping Beauty, thankfully getting rid of the twee character dances, most notably Puss and Boots and the Bluebird. All that remains of the original ballet is a thread of the storyline and Tchaikovsky’s music, which holds up majestically despite the lack of a live orchestra.
The Kennedy Center Opera House has been transformed—for the week, at least—into a dark, dangerous, shadowy place, where the moon glows like an opal and the sun rarely shines and the pretty little fairies have been reborn as strapping young men in steam-punk gear sporting menacing-looking wings on their backs, black stripes across their eyes and the occasional pair of fangs.
Even the ballet’s heroine, Princess Aurora (an exuberant, supple and high-kicking Hannah Vassallo) is a far cry from a pastel Disney confection. Practically from birth – which is dramatic in itself as the evil fairy Carabosse (Tom Jackson Greaves) holds the infant up to the sky in a clatter of thunder and lightning before presenting her to the childless King Benedict (Edwin Ray) and Queen Eleanor (Daisy May Kemp) – Aurora marches to her own beat.
As a baby, she’s a handful, somberly watching the adults from her crib and scampering way up the velvet drapes when nobody’s looking. In an inspired touch, the baby Aurora is not played by a bunch of fabric toted around by the company, but as a bisque-colored Bunraku-style puppet. The puppetry allows us to see that her nimble vivacity is present even from the start and also symbolizes her struggle between manipulation and being her spirited self.
When the fairies, led by the entrancing Count Lilac (the poetic Christopher Marney), visit Aurora in the dead of night to celebrate her christening, she is delighted rather than frightened, patty-caking her little hands as Lilac and his troupe amuse the tiny girl with solo dances that bear more than a passing resemblance to Marius Petipa’s original 19th century choreography. While some of the fairies, who have names like Ardor, Feral and Tantrum, hunker and skitter like earthbound creatures, there are others who execute the multiple fouettes and other dexterous footwork we associate with classical ballet fairydom.
Mr. Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty is set in 1890, the year Marius Petipa created the original ballet, and the first act is an Edwardian fantasy of heavy drapery, decorum, rich fabrics and darkly lustrous light. After Carabosse barges into the christening to place a curse on Aurora — that she will be pricked by a rose and die on her 16th birthday — the puppet motif rises once again, this time in a haunting enactment of the curse with the teenage Aurora, faceless and compliant, acquiescing gracefully to her fate.
The second act shifts to 1911, at Aurora’s coming of age party, rendered by set and costume designer Lez Brotherston as a perfect fin de siècle garden party, with immaculate statuary and topiary set against a Turner-esque sky (Mr. Brotherston’s sets and costumes constantly trump themselves with eye-catching ingenuity).
Although the King and Queen echo Nicholas and Alexandra in their stately grandeur, there are signs the times are changing. The swirling waltzes give way to Aurora and her set cranking up the gramophone and dancing the fox trot, gavotte, and the Castle Walk to Tchaikovsky’s music.
Aurora has grown into a lanky, cowgirl type prone to kicking up her heels, rolling on the ground and showing her bloomers. She particularly likes rolling around with Leo (Chris Trenfield, an archetypal ballet hero with a joyful modern dance streak ), the Royal gamekeeper, and their pas de deux is a flirty and playful variation on the less lighthearted duets from Romeo and Juliet and Giselle — at one point she pokes him in the back with her bare toes — you just fall in love with their puppyish ardor.
When Aurora flings off her fancy boots to dance barefoot with Leo and some other suitors, her frisky abandon and youth show in every step, making it all the more tragic when she succumbs to Carabosse’s curse. The curse is borne out by her son Caradoc (Tom Jackson Greaves, sinister and commanding as both mother and son), a scarily handsome suitor who twirls and clasps Aurora with a sense of ownership that borders on the predatory.
Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty
Closes November 17, 2013
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
2 hours, 10 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $30 – $120
Thursday thru Sunday
Details and Tickets
By the final act, we are up to the present time — while Lilac still wears a waistcoat with tails, Leo the squatter vampire has on a hoodie. It is in this scene where Mr. Bourne’s revamping is a particularly inspired transposing of the different ages and dance styles, with Count Lilac moving in beautiful, slow arabesques while Leo runs in cinematic slow-motion beside him.
Another virtuosic touch is use of conveyor belts (swathed in mist so we can’t see the machinery) to transport the fairies around like the musicians in the OK Go! video—only the fairies are striking classical ballet poses instead of executing mad dance skilz on treadmills.
Mr. Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty is a marvel of re-invention and shivery Gothic embellishments, but it does stay true to the spirit of the original fairytale and its happy ending. We need that happy ending, to know that everything is going to turn out all right. Yet, even here Mr. Bourne gives the convention a delectably witty twist that lovers of the Twilight books and movies will surely recognize and savor.
Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance .Director and choreographer, Matthew Bourne . Music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky . Presented by The Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.
Rebecca Maynard . BroadwayWorld
Elliot Lanes . MDTheatreGuide
Gary Tischler . Georgetowner
Sarah Kaufman . Washington Post
Carolyn Kelemen . DCMetroTheaterArts
Susan Galbraith says
I went to a matinee of the ballet today because of your review. I was not disappointed. The audience even got added value by seeing DC public school children in a curtain raiser ballet, part of Re:Bourne, its educational outreach arm. The young dancers were spunky an enthusiastic, performing on this world stage and making their parents proud.
I was delighted by Bourne’s inherent musicality, transforming the well-known waltzes and pas de deux of Sleeping Beauty into something that reinvented beat-for-beat the story. Each act was set in a new time period requiring an update not just in costumes but movement vocabulary. Bourne is particularly adept at discovering movement that defines character and moves the drama forward without it devolving into old fashioned pantomime. The piece was exquisitely lit and costumed. I loved perhaps most of all Aurora-as-puppet and her interactions with the live performers. Fairy magic indeed. This dance-drama was utterly enchanting. Thanks for sending me thither.