City Center, New York, NY; October 26, 2013

Jerry Hochman

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

Once upon a time, there was fairy tale called “La Belle au bois dormant” (“The Beauty sleeping in the wood”), written by Charles Perrault in 1697. The story tells of a king and queen who celebrate the arrival of a long-awaited child with a christening party to which all the fairies in the kingdom are invited, except one – an evil fairy. This fairy, unnamed in the Perrault version but subsequently identified as Carabosse (‘Maleficent’ in the Disney animated film), does not take this slight lightly. She puts a curse on the baby princess, also unnamed in the Perrault version but commonly known as Aurora. The curse provides that Aurora would grow up to be beautiful, but at age 15, give or take, she would prick her finger on a spindle and die. This does not sit well with one of the good fairies invited to the party, called the Lilac Fairy in ballet versions, who modifies the curse such that Aurora would prick her finger on a spindle and go into a coma for a hundred years, then awaken to a kiss from a strange and clueless prince, with whom she would immediately fall in love. After the amended curse plays out, Aurora promptly marries the prince in a ceremony attended by her mother and father and friends, who look no older than they did a century earlier, and lives happily ever after.

This basic story has survived relatively intact in various incarnations for over 300 years. Then along comes Matthew Bourne, and blasts it to smithereens.

I saw Mr. Bourne’s “Sleeping Beauty” in between performances of Christopher Wheeldon’s “Cinderella” by San Francisco Ballet. Maybe I had overdosed on fairy tales, but it came as dance and culture shock, and I disliked it intensely at the beginning. But after the first act, I connected with it, and to my surprise, ultimately loved it (the way one loves a somewhat strange and pixilated relative). It doesn’t always work, but I can recall no recent production that has engendered in me such a wide-ranging response. I groaned out loud, screamed out loud, laughed out loud, and silently shed a mini-tear.

Christopher Marney as Count Lilac in Matthew Bourne's 'Sleeping Beauty'. Photo © Simon Annand

Christopher Marney as Count Lilac in Matthew Bourne’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’.
Photo © Simon Annand

Mr. Bourne’s version is different from the norm the way a Bloody Mary is different from tomato juice. It comes from the same stock as the Perrault story and the Petipa ballet, but it’s spiked with additional ingredients that change it from a stylized fantasy for children of all ages to a peppery elixir that can at times give the viewer an unbearable headache, but at others be marvelously intoxicating. I can think of nothing to match its sheer audacity, except maybe an almost-all-male version of “Swan Lake”.

Mr. Bourne saw a few little problems with the original story. Why would Carabosse so completely lose it over a bungled invitation? Why would Aurora just automatically fall for some guy who awakens her from a sound sleep? How would all those people live more than a hundred years? And what to do with the darker second part of the Perrault story that no one but fairy tale scholars and curious choreographers knows about? So he envisioned solutions to the standard libretto to overcome these narrative flaws.

First, the King and Queen are a barren couple who make a deal with Carabosse to provide them with a child. Carabosse fulfills her end of the bargain and gives them Aurora. Based on images in a brief prologue, Aurora may be Carabosse’s own child, which would make things even kinkier than they already are. So the failure to invite her to the party is no mere slight – it’s a dagger to her heart, and she goes ballistic. Offstage, she subsequently dies, either of heartbreak because she was unappreciated and lost respect, or of pique because her curse was overruled. Then, we see that baby Aurora – befitting her birth mother, whoever she is – is somewhat of a wild child, exhibiting the terrible twos while still an infant; and, as a frisky older girl, entertaining Leo, the besotted court gamekeeper (really the gardener, but why split hares), who climbs into Aurora’s room through an open window for some post-pubescent dalliance. Later, Aurora pricks her finger on a decrepit looking rose provided by Carabosse’s son, Caradoc, who is out to avenge his mother. Aurora collapses, and Caradoc promptly absconds with her to parts unknown. Leo is then preserved forever by a Lilac Fairy with an overbite (called Count Lilac, as in another infamous character with pasty skin, a black cape, and elongated canine teeth). A hundred years later, Leo, who hasn’t aged a bit, is a happy camper tenting at the entrance to the castle, which in the intervening years has become a tourist trap. Count Lilac, who has hung around for a century, then opens the gates to the now forested castle, reintroduces Leo to Aurora, and.…well, you know the rest.

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

Except you don’t. It seems that Carabosse’s son made off with Aurora to keep her for himself, but can’t awaken her because his aren’t the right lips. So he encourages Leo, who has made his way to her hidden bedroom, to kiss her. Caradoc then abducts the now awakened but stupefied Aurora. In the ensuing power struggle, Count Lilac prevails over Caradoc. Leo and Aurora are wed, consummate their marriage, and faster than hyperactive rabbits, create progeny – a daughter who looks a lot like her mother did as an infant.

And I’ve left out the good parts.

Mr. Bourne complicates things by changing the time periods of the story so that it begins in 1890, when Petipa created his ballet version; continues with Aurora’s adolescence in 1911 Edwardian England, and culminates in two scenes in contemporary times: a hundred years after the thorn bite, and then ‘now’ – a few years later. This wasn’t really necessary, but it allows for some unexpected visual images such as the family living in a castle with a private tennis court and several racket-waving suitors for Aurora, and the dance’s climax in a blood-red tinted nightclub that could have been called ‘Fangtasia’ (after the club vampire haunt in HBO’s “True Blood”).

Some of Mr. Bourne’s ideas don’t work. The good fairies look like mutant offspring of fleas and raccoons. Baby Aurora – in this version a peripatetic infant puppet – resembles an evil baby from a horror movie. Count Lilac, feathered (like the other good fairies) and dressed in a blue outfit, looks like he was supposed to have been Bluebird but didn’t make the cut. And the ‘fairy variations’ in Act I are choreographically awful and unfunny nods to Petipa.

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

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

But many of his ideas do work, or at least can be appreciated for their audacity. Somehow, Caradoc’s abduction, and then re-abduction, of Aurora is a believable nightmare that touches a nerve, and that makes Aurora’s eventual rescue more emotionally fulfilling. Aside from the feathered fairies, the costumes and sets (by Mr. Bourne’s frequent collaborator Lez Brotherston) look quite good, and the dancing, other than for the good fairies, is a stylistic mishmash that also somehow works. As outrageous as it may be, there’s always something that surprises, and the viewer’s attention never fades. And most of all, the piece has more dramatic tension and passion than any ‘normal’ version of the story could have. There is a palpable battle here between good and evil (Count Lilac and Caradoc) that is not portrayed in simple black-and-white terms. That consequently makes the piece more textured and exciting to watch, and the dance displays real passion in the relationship between Aurora and Leo (including a newborn “Rose Adagio”).

Of the highly competent cast, Adam Maskell was wonderful as both Carabosse and Caradoc. He was a coiled snake, an evil Elvis, and an attractive hazard. Did I mention that Aurora is mesmerized by him, and physically drawn to him, without knowing that he may be her bad-boy brother? As Leo the princely commoner, Chris Trenfield, who had the laboring partnering oar, did a fine job as the teenage object of Aurora’s affection and the befuddled victim of forces beyond his control. Christopher Marney, the production’s Associate Choreographer, was nasty in a heroic sort of way, and danced and acted with consistent power despite his strange costume. But the central figure in the piece, Aurora, was outstandingly portrayed by Hannah Vassallo, a tiny sprite who was the epitome of a free spirit and who filled the stage with light and movement when she wasn’t comatose.

I doubt that Mr. Bourne’s sometimes bizarre and sometimes brilliant vision of “Sleeping Beauty” will replace the mainstream white bread version. But it’s one of those rare pieces that takes chances, and such creative audacity should be celebrated. It should be seen by anyone with a reasonably agile mind. And bring the kids – based on the comments by some of the younger attendees at a discussion with Mr. Bourne following the performance, they’re more receptive to new ideas than adults might think, and can appreciate a horror movie/love story perhaps more than adults. Maybe go on Halloween night. And, in addition to an open mind, bring some True Blood. And you’ll leave happily ever after.

Matthew Bourne’s “Sleeping Beauty” is at City Center to November 3, then continues to Charlotte, NC; Washington, DC; and Los Angeles, CA. See for details.