Northern Jubilee Auditorium, Edmonton, AB; November 7, 2013
There was snow falling outside and inside the Northern Jubilee Theatre on November. Only the snow falling inside wasn’t – metaphorically – the kind you play in, rather the kind that plays games with you. For in Mats Ek’s ‘Sleeping Beauty starkly modern take on the classic fairy tale, Aurora is not an innocent princess, but a heroin-addicted suburban teenager. Ek rips apart the story, fastening back together with his unique movement language, creating a dance that is in equal parts fascinating, confusing, haunting, bleak and unexpected. While the Edmonton audience seemed a bit lost in their first introduction to Ek, the piece was a perfect vehicle for the multi-talented dancers of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal.
Mats Ek is as close to Swedish dance royalty as you can get, being the son of Birgit Cullberg, perhaps the most well known Swedish choreographer of all time. Yet his view of ‘royalty’, as seen through his ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is bleak and certainly not of the ‘happily ever after’ kind. Aurora uses the club scene to escape her over-protective parents, and meets Carabosse who promptly gets her addicted to heroin. Eventually, with the help of four fairies and a magical grandmother, she meets the very ordinary Prince Desire and lives happily after. Sort of, not really… And that doesn’t explain the random French chef.
To bring this story to the stage, Mats Ek ditches almost everything but the Prince, the Princess, the godmother figure, some fairly flaky fairies and Tchaikovsky’s epic score. And proceeds to challenge everything we thought we knew about “Sleeping Beauty”. The piece requires very much of the Forsythian ‘check your preconceptions at the door’ approach to dance, but it mostly works. While the story gets a bit lost along the way, there’s nothing quite like Ek’s ability to create entirely new movement to familiar music. The choreography can be jarring, but it’s clever, intricately layered and deeply attuned to the music. While his choreography provides glimpses of his extensive ballet training, Ek is firmly in the modern school. He is comfortable in both realms, using the whole stage from the floor to the air that parts to accommodate the highest of his lifts.
Ek begins his ballet with the relationship of Aurora’s parents. Everything about their grey, simple costumes (by Peder Freiij who also is credited for the minimalist grey-panelled sets), screams ordinary and somewhat bleak. Yet through his sweeping, but angular choreography, Ek illustrates a relationship full of tender, young love. As Silvia and Florestan, Mahomi Endoh and Jérémy Galdeano gave possibly the performance of the evening. Galdeano was at ease with Ek’s intricate, body-contorting lifts as much as he with the explosive jumps that also frequent the choreography.
In contrast with what is usually seen on North American dance stages, Ek does not shy away from sexuality and sexual images. There’s plenty of action, both between Aurora’s parents and between Aurora and Carabosse. What makes it work is Ek’s extraordinary ability to make Tchaikovsky’s score work in an entirely different context. Without bastardizing the music – other than a few rare moments, including what sounded like segue to the chicken dance from “La Fille Mal Gardee” – he uses to accompany scenes of seduction, a cowgirl-esque dance, and corps of business man. The famous quavering string sections become the rhythm of Aurora’s convulsions as she overdoses. One would never think of Tchaikovsky with sex and drugs, but it works, it really works!
Carabosse is first glimpsed as a syringe-wielding doctor assisting at Aurora’s birth, and returns as a purple-clad dope dealer when Aurora runs off to the clubs. André Silva was far more effective as the Dr. Carabosse, both in terms of dance (his beyond 180 degree splits from almost no preparation were to die for!) and characterization. His chemistry with Graziella Lorriaux’s Aurora wasn’t particularly strong, though Ek doesn’t seem to define Carabosse beyond being a drug peddling slimeball. Lorriaux though was fantastic throughout, eerily effective in portraying the ravages of drug addiction and the anguish of teenagerdom.
The fairy brigade is reduced to a mere quartet, with Gold being the leader of the pack. Ek has great fun giving each fairy a distinct, modern personality, but their role in the story is vague at best. They pop up in fabulously funny solos – Gold (Sarah Kingston) is boss lady with her whistle, Silver (Renata Commisso) is all about pompous elegance, Emerald (Jacqueline Lopez) is stylish Irish lass with red hair, short skirts and high heels, and Ruby (Emma Garau Cima) is the energetic ditz of the bunch. Their costumes provide rare flashes of color, and their solos contain some of Ek’s best choreography. In particular, Cima stood out in Ruby’s cowgirl solo, while Lopez brought down the house in her sultry dance in high heels. Yet they don’t really seem to actually help Aurora, or Desire other than bustling around at Aurora’s birth.
By the second act when Aurora was well and truly addicted, Ek seems to give up all pretense of a real story. It may turn off some, but if you go with the flow, it’s a heck of a ride. Corps of men in suits and grey skirt-clad Auroras leap across the stage. The Grands Ballets is not large, so most of the company was likely on stage, but from corps to principals, the company is full of talent. Then, perhaps taking a page of Forsythe’s “Impressing the Czar”, Ek blurs the line between off stage and on stage, by having Prince Desire arrives from offstage, yelling loudly about the dance. Promptly, the piece morphs into a hysterically ‘Swan Lake’ spoof, complete with wobbly swans and a faux pas de six. Which confuses our poor ordinary Prince even more.
It was the end though, that was most jarring, and perhaps not true to Ek’s mix of drama and humor. While we get an infamous kiss, it only occurs once Desire has repeatedly shot Carabosse. The audience seemed very taken aback – perhaps in 1996 this violence worked, but given repeated events of recent years, it may too close to home, too violent. It also comes out of nowhere, because we barely know Desire, and he barely knows Aurora. Yet he’s willing to commit murder for her? And then while he waits for her to wake up, a random French chef appears on stage for a comedic lesson on cooking fish soup. Totally Forsythe, but the juxtaposition of humor and violence is uncomfortable.
But a kiss is just a kiss, and despite settling down to happy domesticity, life has one last jab for our Prince and Princess. To the notes of Tchaikovsky’s finale, Aurora births a giant egg (like her mother). Only this egg is purple, Carabosse purple. With that, Ek leaves us to decide whether it’s really happily ever after.