Twenty five years after forming the original Adventures in Motion Pictures Bourne’s London based company has completed his trilogy of the Tchaikovsky and Petipa story ballets with his gothic styled version of “Sleeping Beauty”. It has been a great run that has made new audiences for dance and created a fantastically successful brand for Bourne’s eccentric blend of high theatricality, alt-storytelling and delightfully irreverent make-overs of classic ballets. But this “Sleeping Beauty” for his renamed company, New Adventures, also could make you wish for some of the old adventures of “Swan Lake” and “Edward Scissorhands” which made much deeper emotional statements with a more unified dance aesthetic while still delivering big on the theater.
There is a lot to love in this “Sleeping Beauty”. Bourne is open to letting the unexpected happen, even in a well-worn story. The breezy sweep of a revamped story unites the central romantic couple, a friendly, time-travelling gang of Vampires, and the she-male sorceress Carabosse with a happy ending made for the “Twilight” crowd. The story opens in Edwardian England and concludes in the present. It’s the vampire angle that allows Aurora’s young lover to be the one who, one hundred years later, breaks the spell and recues her from Carabosse’s curse.The slapstick opening with the fumbling manor servants and its flickering homage to black and white cinema is masterful, and reminds you just how much Bourne wants his ballets to reflect the entertainment value of the movies. A beautifully manipulated puppet standing in for the baby Aurora dominates much of the first scene. She was particularly appealing for her life-like reactions to the variations danced by the five fairies under the rule of Count Lilac. You could choose to watch either and be well rewarded.
For the classically minded, there are artfully placed references to the “Bayadére, Kingdom of the Shades” with the dancers floated along by moving walkways crisscrossing the back of the stage, and to “Giselle” in Aurora’s relationship with her parents’ estate gamekeeper and paramour, Leo. Kenneth MacMillan’s tomb scene pas de deux from Romeo and Juliet returns in the final act, recast for the sleeping Aurora and Carabosse’s evil son, Caradoc. The hard working cast who dance away at a fevered pitch, all the while works the story for laughs. Taking their curtain call, their enthusiasm is infectious. Nearly three hundred performances in, it’s clear they enjoy delivering on Bourne’s promise of accessible dance theater.
It’s a difficult business to successfully remake a classic, even one in which you allow yourself the freedom to spectacularly stray from the original. Magnificent sets and lighting by Lez Brotherston and Paule Constable lead us through environments that clearly deserve a big ballet. But what seemed missing in this production were the sublime moments where the dancing itself soars as it does in the original. Bourne has elevated the story (let’s face it, the classical version of the “Sleeping Beauty” story is slight and flawed) but the dancing has not always kept up. Too often, though earnestly danced, the movement was over filled with steps, frantic, and lacking a unified aesthetic.
Hannah Vassallo as Aurora proved witty, and imbued her Aurora with genuine ardor and abandon. She looks and dances like a down to earth young woman leading an uncomfortable life amongst the starchy manor swells. Leo her suitor, played by Dominic North, was a beautifully unaffected dancer, with an easy, natural delivery. The imposing Carbosse was played by Adam Maskell who also doubled as the one dimensional, glowering son, Caradoc. The Count Lilac character often seemed in a world of his own, riffing on classic technique while his fairy crew scuttled about in his shadow. He was ably played by Christopher Marney.
Bourne has a professed love of Tchaikovsky’s music, but it doesn’t stop him from the inevitable cutting, pasting and reordering. Some of the music is well used, particularly the music for the sleepwalkers in the manor forest, and the music from the Act III variations (Puss in Boots and the Mazurka) that accompany the night club scene. Other moments were not as successful. The garden party in particular with its blandly waltzing couples made slight use of the large scale music that usually accompanies the Garland Dance in Act I of the original. The ballet ends where it began, with a happy ending, the couple of the hour proud parents of a new child, this one presumably with special powers.
Bourne’s “Swan Lake” at the Ahmanson Theater in 2006 was accompanied by a reduced orchestra. But times have changed. All of the music for these performances of “Sleeping Beauty” will be heard in pre-recorded performances. It is a disappointment that real music has once again gone missing. How much better to reaffirm the music’s importance, showing it to be as important for a reconstituted contemporary version of the ballet as it is for a true classical company.
(The reviewed performance took place in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theater on November 20, 2013. The direction, choreography and new scenario were all by Matthew Bourne. Additional sound design was by Paul Groothius. Performances continue through December 1, 2013)