Review: New Adventures - Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 4 Dec - 26 Jan 2013
Reviewed by Lise Smith - Sunday 9 December 2012

New Adventures - Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Bettina Strenske

Performance reviewed: 7 December

Matthew Bourne has been reinventing the traditional Christmas ballet for two decades now. In 1992, Adventures in Motion Pictures brought us the high-camp candy fest that is Nutcracker! , replacing a middle-class German Christmas with workhouse scenes that give way to a technicolor world of sweet delights inspired by Busby Berkley. Cinderella set in the Blitz, with the Prince replaced by an RAF pilot, followed in 1997. Now Bourne turns his eye for reinvention to another perennial Christmas ballet favourite, Sleeping Beauty , with often spectacular results.

Petipa’s original production of Sleeping Beauty from 1890 is often regarded as something of a touchstone by which ballet repertory companies are measured – the steps are dazzlingly detailed and Act I’s Rose Adagio is a renowned test for any prima ballerina. Bourne’s approach has never been quite so virtuoso – his best works are expressive, narrative pieces with choreography drawn directly from the characters, whether lovelorn mechanics in The Car Man or conflicted royal suitors in Swan Lake.

Here, his first order of business is to pep up the character of Princess Aurora, who first appears in the prologue as a cheekily spirited baby girl climbing up the palace curtains (thanks to some beautifully realised puppetry directed by Sarah Wright). This unruly baby grows into a headstrong young woman of 21 – Perrault’s fairytale has her coming of age at sixteen, but Bourne transports the story into Edwardian times with an age increase to suit – and divides her time between dancing barefoot around the palace grounds and sporting with her sweetheart, Leo the gardener. This new, spunkier Aurora is an immediately familiar type for modern audiences – a girl who knows her own mind and isn’t afraid to rip her shoes and stockings off to show it, rather than the ingénue reined in by courtly protocols of Petipa’s production.

In keeping with his character-led choreography, Bourne’s Rose Agagio replaces Aurora’s courtly showpiece with a lush and sensuous duet for the two lovers reconciling after a brief tiff. She nudges herself into Leo’s arms and, despite her outwardly rebellious nature, finds enough security there to go leaping into his embrace from some quite spectacular distances. The bliss of young love is sadly short-lived, however, thanks to the traditional curse cast by the wicked fairy Carabosse.

Contemporary audiences may share Bourne’s evident unease with the idea of a sixteen-year-old girl waking up in a new century and marrying the first man she sees; the choreographer’s solution is to bring Leo into the present with some cunning assistance from the Lilac Fairy. This opens a whole new set of problems, however, beginning with poor Leo’s lonely hundred-year wait for his beloved – the young man may be smitten, but that’s a long time to hang around outside the palace gates. And what of the reconciliation? Spirited as the young Aurora is, surely a girl who has slept through the 20th century (with its two world wars and profound social and economic change) will no longer be a suitable match for a world-weary 121 year old man – and that’s before we even get to the problems of procreation.

Unconcerned for the present, however, our hero battles his way through a forest full of sleepwalkers, led ever onwards by a vision of the sleeping Aurora, only to find himself cruelly tricked at her bedside. The trick (in which Leo finds himself substituted at the last moment for Carabosse’s equally wicked son, Caradoc) is a clever twist which creates a new, unpredictable ending for the narrative. It’s nice that the costumes come full circle in the final sequence, too, with the dénouement taking place at a decadent neo-Victorian soiree.

Full marks must go to designer Lez Brotherston’s production team for the sumptuousness of the set and costumes – from stylish late Victorian gothic in the Prologue to pre-war elegance in the first act and that striking nod back to the past in the final scenes, the cast never look less than 100% gorgeous. Just seventeen strong, Bourne’s hardworking performers fill the stage with expressive presence; Hannah Vassallo is a wonderfully vivacious Aurora very nearly worth waiting one hundred years for, and Dominic North as Leo convinces us that he’s devoted enough to make that happen. The only slightly odd note here is the production’s decision to use a recorded score, denying us the pleasure of feeling dancers and musicians respond to one another live every night.

Bourne’s recreation of the Christmas canon for a new generation certainly seem to be successful if the delighted squeaks from young audience members at Sadler’s Wells on Friday were anything to go by. This new Sleeping Beauty is unlikely to completely displace Petipa’s pretty pointework from the winter stage, but there’s certainly room in town for both.

Continues at Sadler’s Wells until 26 January 2013. (Best ticket availability in January)

Lise Smith is a dance manager and teacher, as well as a regular contributor to & Arts Professional

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