With his new ballet, Matthew Bourne completes his trilogy of great Tchaikovsky ballets, which started with The Nutcracker back in 1992.
This was quickly followed by his internationally acclaimed male version of Swan Lake, in 1995, but it has taken him another 17 years to tackle Tchaikovsky’s greatest ballet, Sleeping Beauty.
According to the programme notes, Bourne had struggled to come up with the perfect idea, a way of re-imagining a work associated with the pinnacle of classical ballet form and grandeur. When in Moscow with his company last spring, he was offered the chance of a private tour of Tchaikovsky’s country retreat. Bourne had been searching for inspiration for his next project and it was when standing in the composer’s bedroom, with its tiny iron bed and simple wooden table that the idea of doing Sleeping Beauty came to him.
It has certainly been worth the wait. Bourne responds to Tchaikovsky’s inspired music with his best work since Swan Lake. After the disappointment (for me anyway) of Edward Scissorhands, I had worried that he had run out of steam, but, with this re-telling of the classic fairy tale he is back on form. He is helped immeasurably of course by Tchaikovsky’s gloriously symphonic score, though I was a little disappointed at first to find that the music had been pre-recorded. Nothing can ever quite replace the frisson of a live orchestra, but I was soon so caught up in the action on stage, that I ceased to notice the absence of musicians in a pit.
I don’t want to give away too much of Bourne’s re-working of the plot, but suffice it to say he retains Carabosse, the curse and the Lilac Fairy’s moderation of death to one hundred years, only the Lilac Fairy is now Count Lilac (an enigmatic Christopher Marney), who is attended by what can only be called a group of benevolent vampires, the reasons for which become clear later in the plot. Aurora’s coming of age party takes place in 1911, so that after her 100 year sleep, we are brought right back to date. He also introduces us to Carabosse’s son, Caradoc, played by the same dancer as Carabosse herself. Deliciously malevolent as Carabosse, Ben Bunce transforms himself into a darkly evil Caraboc in one of the key portrayals of the evening. The lovers, in this version, have to work hard to find happiness, and they are superbly danced by Hannah Vassallo and Dominic North. It is in the pas de deux for these two (more than one in this version) that Bourne’s choreography finds it’s truest lyricism, a wonderful realisation of the beauty and lyricism in the score, their final duet was truly moving, an apotheosis similar to that for the lovers in Cinderella. Elsewhere Bourne’s choreography is as inventive as it was in Swan Lake, integrating waltz and more modern dance forms into the Edwardian sequences in 1911 and finding a different style and language for the final scene set in 2011. The benevolent vampires have a language all their own, which stays with them throughout the ballet.
Lez Brotherston has created wonderfully evocative sets and costumes, which span a period of 121 years. Gothic Victorian for Act I, an Edwardian palace garden for Act II, a nightmarish dream sequence for Act III and a modern club setting, all reds and blacks for Act IV. In the end though, it is Bourne’s gift for telling a story that grips the imagination, and here there are none of those annoying winking asides to the audience, that we get in The Nutcracker and (to a lesser extent) Swan Lake. I was swept up in the drama from start to finish. Miss it at your peril.