As a huge fan of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake I was admittedly incredibly excited at the prospect of going to see his interpretation of Sleeping Beauty at The Empire this week, and Bourne’s company New Adventures did not disappoint.
For those who are unfamiliar with the story, here is a brief summary of Bourne’s re-imagining of the tale: the King and Queen are in despair, finding themselves unable to conceive a child. Longing for a baby to call their own, they seek the help of the dark fairy Carabosse, who delivers them a daughter. The King, however, does not show Carabosse the gratitude she desires, and so she attempts to kill the child. Thankfully for the Princess, the good fairies are at hand to attempt to undo this wickedness, but only succeed in reducing her sentence to 100 years of sleep, until she is awoken by true love’s kiss…
In a Q&A after the performance, Bourne defined the word ‘ballet’ to the audience: a story told without words. Bourne’s version of a ballet differs from the classical view of the dance form, yet his reinventions of such iconic stories always contain a mixture of classical and modern choreography, which enables his work to engage a whole new demographic of audience, as well as satisfy and earn the respect of hardcore dance fans. This, he says, is a conscious (not calculated) decision which he embarks upon at the beginning of each production, as he aims to widen the audience for the centuries-old theatre as well as entertain the classical enthusiasts.
For Sleeping Beauty, this combination of classical and modern worked wonders – in more ways than one. Set across 2 completely different periods of time, divided by Aurora’s century of sleep, Bourne’s production begins in 1890. The lavish sets and sumptuous costumes are in perfect harmony with the historical setting, and the first half of the show is dutifully choreographed to reflect a more classical era of dance.
This being said, Bourne’s choreography leaps off the stage, wowing the audience with not just many styles of dance, but many entirely different moods, intended to represent different themes and emotions, for every character. As with all of his ballets, Bourne chooses to subvert gender stereotypes of dance, and bring more focus than is traditional upon the male leads. Although Perrault’s story centres upon a princess, Bourne manages to engage the audience with the male characters equally well, allowing each member of his company the chance to shine.
My favourites in the first Act were the fairies, who each have a distinct personality which is expressed clearly and beautifully through their varying dance styles. The fairies were a joyous presence on stage, and their costumes were my favourite of the whole performance; delicately impish, with a gothic-romantic quality to them.
The use of a puppet for the baby Aurora is also an inspired idea, and Bourne commented that he thought it appropriate for the child-princess to have a personality from the start, as we do not meet the dancer who plays her until much later on. I agree fully with this decision, and the puppet brought some much-appreciated humour to the show, which went down well with the audience and added a new dimension to the story, as the baby puppet scampered around the stage wreaking mayhem with the servant characters.
Later, in a twist from the original tale, Aurora does not prick her finger, but smells a black rose (very clever imagery for the stage) and falls into a century-long sleep on the day of her coming of age. Caradoc, Carabosse’s son is the culprit and his presence on stage is dark and ominous, contrasting beautifully with both Leo (Aurora’s love interest) and Count Lilac (King of the good Fairies) at her birthday party. The party itself is set in the palace gardens, with accurate historical dress for every dancer. There is a lovely dance section where Aurora and Leo are left alone on stage, and their flirtatious, playful pas-de-deux reflects their age and lust perfectly.
After the interval, the story moves on 100 years from Aurora’s 21st birthday to 2011 and we see the place where she sleeps surrounded by contemporary student-types trying in vain to enter the fairy-guarded palace. I felt that this second half took a while to get going, as there was a scene in which Leo (who before the interval receives a bite from the fairy king, allowing him to become a fairy and therefore live until Aurora wakes up) is running through the grounds to reach where she sleeps. This scene is a little tedious compared to the more intricately-choreographed sequences, and did little to show off the dancer’s skill.
Following this, however, the wedding scene, in which Caradoc attempts to marry the awakened princess, is really entertaining and thoroughly different to the style of the first act. Lit by neon strips, with a fleet of dancers clothed in red velvet and black lace corsets, Bourne creates a hell-ish ceremony to illustrate Caradoc’s intentions with the virgin princess. After feeling uncertain about the need to bring the story into the present day, this scene convinced me that Bourne’s decision was clever and original, as the latter part of the second act showed an entirely different side to the story as well as the dancers themselves, who thrived at mastering both classical and modern styles.
Caradoc and Count Lilac again took the lead, their good-versus-evil dance styles working to show off some incredible dance talent. The dancers who played these characters were made up to look very alike, which heightened the intensity of their contrasting performances, lending a gothic and uncanny atmosphere to every scene they shared.
With a wonderful cast, amazing design work and top notch choreography, the performance only lacked one thing: a live orchestra. Bourne explained this after the show as being a sad misfortune due to a lack of funds, and stated that a full orchestra would be something he hopes to achieve in the future. Tchaikovsky’s score is an incredible and iconic piece of music and would certainly benefit the company if it were possible to have it performed live.
Having now seen 2 Matthew Bourne productions, I am thoroughly excited at the news that New Adventures returns to Liverpool next year once again with Swan Lake, and also a new production which will grant an amazing opportunity to young, local dancers…Lord of the Flies. Matthew Bourne has certainly made his mark on the world of theatre, and with the prospect of such a project next year, will undoubtedly make his mark on the Liverpool art scene too.