Matthew Bourne’s “Sleeping Beauty”
A New Adventures Production
The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
November 12, 2013
by George Jackson
copyright 2013 by George Jackson
Britain’s Matthew Bourne likes to caper with iconic plots, characters and musical compositions. He was unknown in America when, towards the end of the last century, the Kennedy Center made a low key announcement that it would preview a new “Swan Lake” movie at its then American Film Institute Theater late one night. Ballet being very much “in” at the time, and despite the lack of casting information, the line of fans waiting to get in was long. Once the movie started rolling it was obvious that the ballet by Bourne wasn’t a traditional “after Petipa and Ivanov” version. The royals at the center of the action had been updated to seem like the House of Windsor and the enchanted swans who intrude on their reign had been transgendered. It was the swans as male that, in particular, caused a stir. They had the predatory beauty, the dangerous allure of the actual birds. Arms arched like wings, backs stooped to crane forward. This corps of men seemed ready to attack, about to cast its spell in flight formation. That singular, initial image of the swans persisted in the audience’s memory. It was as powerful as the traditional vision of the Swan Queen, hovering, pulled-up on pointe with arms undulating fearfully, pleadingly, or reaching for freedom. Although the indelible idea of the Swan Queen may have originated with choreographer Julius Reisinger in 1877, it was Petipa and Ivanov who in the 1890s knew how to develop and vary it, distribute it from principal to soloists and female corps, to turn it into true choreography. Bourne wasn’t as skilled. There’s even a question whether the notion of male dancers as swans was his or Roland Petit’s. What made Bourne’s “Swan Lake” beside the male flock image were the clever parallels he postulated between legend and real life. Bourne’s “Sleeping Beauty” lacks any such interplay.
To have the boyfriend still potent in Act 2, after a hundred years, he has had to become a fairy and sprout tiny wings. That’s sort of touching. The production’s potentially most novel passage happens just before the princess’ awakening. She is raped by the Dracula figure (the Caradoc character, son of the “dark” fairy Carabosse). If only Bourne had built and structured this necrophile scene into inventive dance drama, his “Sleeping Beauty” might have contained something as memorable as his “Swan Lake”. That there’s a rocking nightclub scene to ballabile music from the old ballet’s royal court scenes is yet another second-hand effect. Of course, the story ends conventionally.
The sets by Lez Brotherston are handsome. So are the costumes, although they’ve been made too elaborate and obscure some of the dancing. Most roles during this tour are being double or triple cast and the audience had to assume that the dancer actually performing the part on opening night was the one listed first in the printed program. According to Kennedy Center, that wasn’t invariably the case. Opening night’s Princess Aurora was Hannah Vassallo, her boyfriend Leo was Chris Trenfield. Tom Jackson Greaves was both Caradoc and Carabosse. One of the most expressive figures on stage was the Baby Aurora puppet. A good deal of Tchaikovsky’s music for the 1890 production by Marius Petipa was used, recorded for the Bourne version. In the audience last night were Tchaikovsky fans who couldn’t keep thoughts of the dancing, miming and marching Petipa made from it out of their heads.