Once the bad boy of ballet, Matthew Bourne is now as much a part of the ballet establishment as a pink tutu. His takes on ballet classics have become a hugely popular Christmas tradition at Sadler’s Wells and beyond. But while he is now practically an old master, his ballets remain as fresh and invigorating as they were when his first production leaped, sans en-pointe, onto the stage in 1998.
This year, Bourne completed the trio of Tchaikovsky works he began with Nutcracker and Swan Lake with his retelling of Sleeping Beauty, a story of prince charmings, princesses and bad verses evil. The story is slight, but Bourne’s version offers enough twists served up with a dollop humour to give this fairy tale a very 21st century feel without losing any of the original magic. In Bourne’s version, the bad fairy dishes out her very own brand of IVF; Prince Charming is now a gardener who Aurura was in love with pre-nap time (which neatly skips around the rather icky business of a strange man in white tights waking you up from your long slumber with a kiss and then having to spend the rest of with him) and the good guys are vampires. Best of all baby Princess Aurora is a puppet – all too realistic – doll that is so lifelike and charming that it threatens to steal the show.
There’s more than a touch of the Tim Burton’s about Bourne’s larger than life ballet with it’s fantastical set (think a sugary Pemberley) and opera-tastic costumes, and there is unmistakable drama to Sleeping Beauty. Bourne choses dancers who can act which makes all the difference in a ballet that has abandoned the pirouettes in favour of theatrics. At no point do I feel like I’m watching bad mime.
It’s all terrifically good fun, but despite the almost cartoonish set, the vampires, magic realism and bare feet, the dancing can still enchant even if it doesn’t spellbind in the way a traditional Sleeping Beauty can. Hannah Vassallo as Aurora is captivating while Chris Trenfield is adept, if a fairly blank canvas for Shaw, as her beau Chris Leo. Ben Bunce as the bad fairy Carabosse is every bit as menacing when he returns as her son Caradoc.
The story rather tempers off in the second half, giving way to Bourne’s imagination – a velvety, plush yet seedy nightclub, vampire angst and sleepwalking forest dwellers as Bourne takes a hefty edit to the (recorded) score.
I love a pas de deux as much as the next person (and there were a couple of lovely ones in this production) but Bourne’s ballets are less about pirouettes and more about pure pleasure. And that’s no bad thing
by Suzanne Elliott