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Matthew Bourne's Cinematic 'Sleeping Beauty'

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Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance, directed by Matthew Bourne

(released on September 30, 2013)

available at Amazon
Swan Lake, directed by Matthew Bourne
What would a person who fell asleep 100 years ago think of the world now? For one thing, in the age of Twilight, she would be amazed by the ubiquity of vampires in mass media culture. So, it should be no surprise that Matthew Bourne has turned to that very tired plot device in Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance, his reworking of the Tchaikovsky-Petipa classic The Sleeping Beauty with his New Adventures company, seen last night in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Premiered just last fall in Great Britain and now available on DVD, the production is on the road, with performances all this week in the big hall along the Potomac. Can a Bourne Giselle, à la The Walking Dead, be too far around the corner?

Bourne has had such enormous success precisely because he has mass appeal, and his productions have an unmistakably cinematic quality -- big-budget, high-tech theater adorned with the trappings of ballet. The story told by Tchaikovsky's music is diced up, rearranged, substituted, but in a genre with no words, the music can serve many different choreographies, provided that the choreographer does as Bourne claims he did, in an informative program note, and follows the cues of the music in all his decisions. Trimmed down to about two hours, almost an hour short of the entire score, the story begins with the birth of Princess Aurora in 1890, the year that Tchaikovsky and Petipa premiered the ballet. The baby is played by an adorable puppet, who claps, bobs her head, scoots around the floor, and even climbs the curtain. This image of Aurora as marionette is echoed in the third act, when the son of the evil fairy (mother and son both played with oily menace by Tom Jackson Greaves) dances with the limp body of the sleeping Aurora.

Other Articles:

Sarah Kaufman, Matthew Bourne injects new energy into ‘Sleeping Beauty’ with dance theater piece (Washington Post, November 14)

Sarah Anne Hughes, DCist Interview: Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty @ The Kennedy Center (DCist, November 13)

Celia Wren, Matthew Bourne’s “Sleeping Beauty” (Washington Post, November 8)

Joan Acocella, Wake Up!: Matthew Bourne's "Sleeping Beauty" (The New Yorker, November 4)

Robert Johnson, Matthew Bourne's 'Sleeping Beauty': don't leave the windows open at night (Newark Star-Ledger, October 30)

Robert Greskovic, Matthew Bourne Bites Into 'Sleeping Beauty' (Wall Street Journal, October 28)

Brian Seibert, After a 100-Year Sleep, a Beauty Wakes to Vampires (New York Times, October 27)

Roslyn Sulcas, Waking Up to a Bloodsucking Lover (New York Times, October 18)
In Act II, the year is 1911, and we see the grown-up Aurora (a spirited Hannah Vassallo) falling in love with Leo, the commoner who tends her family's Edwardian garden (an earnest Chris Trenfield). The evil fairy's curse is actually carried out by her son, with the prick of a poisoned flower putting Aurora to sleep for a hundred years. This is where the leader of the fairies, one Count Lilac (Christopher Marney), bites Leo on the neck, the price of being turned into an undead abomination apparently worth the chance to survive for a century until he is able to release his love. No more spoilers, but let us just say that the normal conventions of ballet, where the drama is sewn up early on to make for a divertissement of unrelated entrées, are turned on their head.

If you are expecting a classic Sleeping Beauty (e.g., the Mariinsky Ballet in 2010, or the Royal Ballet in 2006), you will be disappointed, as will small children looking for their familiar fairy tale. Purists may sniff at the changes, and the use of recorded music always bothers me, but what Bourne is going for -- a sort of living cinema, complete with projected titles and impressive perspective-rich scenes and lavish costumes in many eras (set and costume design by Lez Brotherston) -- justifies the crushing sweep of the recorded music. Amplified at volumes that were not only far beyond what an actual orchestra could produce but sometimes uncomfortable for my ears, the recording was made especially for this production, in 2012, by an orchestra put together for the purpose.

Bourne's storytelling is impeccable and fun, but most of the big payoffs of true ballet are ignored. The closest we come to a corps scene is the the sleepwalking scene in Act III. There is not a satisfying pas de deux, either, since Bourne uses lots of pantomime in the interest of telling the story. His emphasis struck my eye as mostly on the torso movements and expressive port de bras, rather than the legs, which Brotherston's costumes, often dark on the bottom and light on top, help to hide. If the work is judged only on its own merits, however, it is an entertaining evening in the theater, with plenty of laughs, if not necessarily the moments of grace and beauty one craves in ballet.

This production continues through November 17, in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Reduced-price orchestra-level tickets are available: use the code "166894" when you contact the box office.

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