Opera House, JFK Center for the Performing Arts, Washington DC; November 13, 2013

Carmel Morgan

Hannah Vassallo as Aurora in Matthew Bourne's 'Sleeping Beauty'. Photo © Simon Annand

Hannah Vassallo as Aurora in Matthew Bourne’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’. Photo © Simon Annand

I had heard about Matthew Bourne and his popular twists on classic ballets, yet I had not seen one of them until his New Adventures company from the United Kingdom brought “Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance” to DC’s Kennedy Center, just shy of the Nutcracker season.  I wasn’t disappointed, exactly, but I somehow had imagined Bourne’s version would be campier and more over the top than what I witnessed.  Nonetheless, I enjoyed the performance, though I wished for even a little more twisted fun.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m sensitive about the classics; however, if you’re going to tamper with them, you might as well go big and daring.  For me, “Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance” fell a tad short in daringness, and in its dancing as well.  Also, live music, instead of the hollow sounding Tchaikovsky soundtrack, would have made things livelier.

I loved, first and foremost, the puppet baby.  It’s hard to fathom anyone not liking this small creature, who had more personality and expression than some of the dancers.  Using hooded black figures as in Japanese bunraku puppetry (according to program notes, unnamed company members served as the puppeteers), the baby Aurora crawled (sometimes she humorously crawled backward), wailed, and threw tantrums.  Additionally, she charmed with the excited attention she gave to the overdressed winged Victorian fairies who crossed the stage on a conveyor belt.  This was only mildly interesting because the dancers didn’t do much movement while sliding along horizontally.

The fairies surrounding baby Aurora’s crib only somewhat captivated me. There seemed to be something flingy and almost unnecessarily clownish about the various fairy solos.  Bourne collaborator Lez Brotherston supplied the set and costumes.  The dancing of the fairies didn’t dazzle, in part because thick dark costumes disguised the lines of their bodies.  The feathery lacy skirts of the female fairies, for example, hung quite low and showed very little of their legs.  Overall, Brotherston’s set and costumes added a lot of mood and texture to the work.  Most successful, perhaps, was Act II’s 1911 garden party/picnic with its soft impressionistic touches.  The glorious parasols and white and cream clothing made the dancers look as if they’d stepped out of a period painting or art history textbook.

While the baby was a highlight, so was Hannah Vassallo as the grownup Aurora.  Vassallo has an animated, engaging face, with almost cat-like wide eyes and lifted brows.  She demonstrated incredible grace and feistiness, which was perfect for her role as an Aurora with both beauty and spunk.

The fairies in Matthew Bourne's 'Sleeping Beauty'.  Photo © Simon Annand

The fairies in Matthew Bourne’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’.
Photo © Simon Annand

Unfortunately, I can’t summarize Bourne’s re-telling of Sleeping Beauty in a brief review.  I must, however, note that it involves vampires and also Leo, the love interest Aurora reunites with and ultimately marries once she awakens one hundred years after being pricked with a thorn.  Anyway, Leo (Dominic North), the royal gamekeeper (the British may have a certain fondness for commoner spouses), patiently wooed the princess, and he even heroically took a bite in the neck by the kind vampire Count Lilac, King of the Fairies (excellently played by Liam Mower), in order to find his happily ever after with her.  North wouldn’t have been my personal pick as the man to steal Princess Aurora’s heart.  He is rather slight and boyish, kind of like a geeky Clark Kent, whereas some of the other male dancers had hunkier builds and wore long hair straight off the cover of a romance novel.  Another change was that Aurora’s nemesis Carabosse, the evil fairy, after an Act I appearance, disappeared and was replaced by Carabosse’s evil vampire son, Caradoc, (both Adam Maskell).  Funny how the two looked so much alike!

The ballet ended up in 2011, when Aurora awakened, so the audience is told, but other than the group of hikers in jeans and sweats holding cell phones, the present day didn’t look terribly up-to-date.  Caradoc’s fondling of the sleeping Aurora, who was immune to his vampire attractiveness, felt overly creepy, and his rolling over her on the floor was reminiscent of rape.  Thankfully, the sweetness of the romance between Aurora and Leo overshadowed the darkest parts.

In sum, Bourne’s “Sleepy Beauty: A Gothic Romance,” was more a spectacle than spectacular, more theater than dance, but if you have a taste for twisted classics, you shouldn’t miss it.