(Sadler’s Wells, London, until 26 January 2013)
Generally speaking I find ballet to be a foreign country: I can appreciate its beauty but I simply don’t speak the language needed to feel entirely at home there. I can appreciate the sweeping vistas of tulle and the exaggerated gestures, but when I was younger they only emphasised the strangeness of this art form, which was clearly something for an initiated elite – of which I was not a member.
Then, in my late teens, I came across Matthew Bourne thanks to a TV broadcast of The Car Man, his reworking of Bizet’s Carmen set in a motor repair shop. It was a breath of fresh air and I was thrilled to discover ballets which kept the glorious music of the originals but told the stories with narrative force, visual flair and a blend of traditional and modern dance. After that came Bourne’s Nutcracker and then Swan Lake, which was the moment I really became hooked on his choreography. Last year he updated Cinderella and set it in London during the Blitz. As I completely missed that one, I was determined not to be caught out again when I heard that Sadler’s Wells’ Christmas show was the final ballet in Bourne’s Tchaikovsky trilogy: Sleeping Beauty.
I’m not sure how much of Bourne’s story has been created especially for this show and how much is an established part of the ballet, although even I can identify a few things that have been invented for this production. Like all good fairy tales the ballet begins with the projected words ‘Once upon a time’ and introduces us to the king and queen who are unhappily childless, and the daughter miraculously born to them. The baby Aurora (adorably performed by puppeteers) is blessed with graces and virtues by a band of well-meaning fairies, led by their king Count Lilac; but she is then cursed by the wicked fairy Carabosse, who feels that the king and queen have been insufficiently grateful for the dark magic she has worked in order to give them a child. The curse is that Aurora will grow to be a young woman and then prick her finger on a black rosebud’s thorn and die.
Count Lilac intervenes and counters the curse, promising the king that Aurora will simply fall asleep and will then be awoken by a kiss from her one true love. Time passes; the princess grows into a beautiful, headstrong, lively girl; and Carabosse dies in exile. Everyone believes that the curse has been broken by her death, but at Aurora’s coming-of-age party there is an unexpected guest: Carabosse’s vengeful son, Caradoc, who has come to present the princess with his own very special offering: a black rose…
If you’ve seen any of Bourne’s other ballets, you’ll know vaguely what to hope for, and Sleeping Beauty delivers in spades. This time he tones down the extravagances of colour and kitsch which were such a powerful feature of The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. Subtitled ‘A Gothic Romance’, his Sleeping Beauty is a darker, more bewitching affair which plays into the current mood for fairy tales with bite (the atmosphere is probably best described as A Midsummer Night’s Dream meets Tim Burton with a hint of Anne Rice).
As always, Bourne throws a few audacious ideas into the mix: for a start, his Aurora falls asleep in Act 2 in 1911, in a gorgeous Edwardian world of white frocks, parasols and garden parties. After a hundred years of slumber, she is awoken in Act 3 in 2011; her one true love turns up wearing jeans and a zip-up sweater. This one true love, incidentally, is not a handsome prince but the castle’s humble gamekeeper, Leo, who has a star-crossed romance with the young Aurora in the halcyon Edwardian period. Having decided to give their romance some history, Bourne is then faced with the question of how to ensure that Leo is still around in one hundred years’ time when Aurora wakes from her sleep. His solution probably isn’t the kind of thing Tchaikovsky had in mind, but it’s very suitable for a Gothic fairy tale and certainly taps into the cultural zeitgeist.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the beautiful costumes, especially those of the fairies: they wore snugly-fitted bodices or frock coats which flared out at the hip into a riot of exquisitely-patterned swatches of fabric (with pairs of wings perched pertly on the dancers’ backs). Having considered the matter at some length over the course of the performance, I’m now convinced that the time is right for the frock coat to make a comeback. If people can cheerfully embrace the return of something as retro as the lone, unadorned moustache, I think there is a strong case for the frock coat and plan to submit this to my male friends in due course, though not with any great hopes of success.
The dancing, of course, was excellent. My friend and I had bought programmes and spent the interval going through the cast photos deciding who was dancing each role; only to find, when we discovered the evening’s cast list in the foyer on the way out, that we’d got it almost entirely wrong. Oops. So I’m going to give the official version here. Aurora (Hannah Vassallo) is free-spirited, mischievous and slightly headstrong: her dancing bubbles over with coltish gaucherie in the early parts of the show but later, as she comes under the power of the dark arts, she becomes immensely graceful, her body arching and curving as if she wasn’t troubled by anything as mundane as a spine. Sleeping Beauty is usually interpreted as the story of a girl’s passage to womanhood, and Vassallo beautifully conveyed this transformation. She was allowed to shine even brighter against the simpler role given to Leo (Dominic North), who excelled at the required blend of determination, loyalty and sweetness.
A recurring feature of Bourne’s ballets, of course, is that he readjusts the roles so that the men have just as much to do as the women. Here Carabosse is played by a man rather than a woman, and the role of the good fairy is also switched to a male role: Count Lilac, who has some of the most impressive and intense solos in the whole show. On that note, I have a confession. In the interval we decided that our Count Lilac was so unbelievably good that he had to be Christopher Marney, the associate choreographer of the production, with a raft of lead roles under his belt and this year’s Critics’ Circle National Dance Award for outstanding modern dance. In fact we were wrong: the supremely graceful, confident and powerful dancer we’d watched was Liam Mower. His performance was the one which really stood out for me: he had incredible control over his body and he conveyed both the strength of the fairy king and his ethereal lightness of touch. Every time he came on stage I sat up straighter in anticipation. Carabosse and her son Caradoc were both danced by Adam Maskell, who didn’t have much to do in the first part except stride around the stage in a brooding and threatening manner (which he managed with aplomb). Later on, when he was allowed to show off a bit, he proved that he was every bit as fine a dancer as Mower, his every move simmering with barely-suppressed desire for the virginal Aurora.
It was all an intoxicating treat. Act 3, set in a moonlit forest bedecked with oil lamps and inhabited by half-dressed sleepwalkers, was initially stunning but went on just a tiny bit too long, after the pacy and eventful Acts 1 and 2. However, as soon as Act 4 burst onto the stage in all its Phantom-of-the-Operaesque glory – crowded with Caradoc’s black-and-red-clad minions and promising a host of evil rituals – we were swept right back into the dark heart of this Gothic fable. It’s a perfect Christmas cocktail of folk tales, romances and classic stories of good and evil, powered by some astoundingly powerful and elegant dancing and transformed, by Matthew Bourne’s particular brand of magic, into a glorious and otherworldly dream. I can’t recommend it highly enough; and, even better, it’ll be embarking on a UK national tour in the spring, so if you can’t make it to London before January, don’t despair! (And, when you have seen it, do let me know what you think!)