Fairy tale dusted with a new magic

 The King of the Fairies, Count Lilac, with the baby Princess Aurora, created by an endearing puppet. Pictures: Simon Annand

Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty

Birmingham Hippodrome


MATTHEW Bourne has come of age. His reinterpretation of Tchaikovsky's third great classical ballet is his most rounded and mature production to date.

It was 1992 that he created Nutcracker, set in a Dickensian orphanage of Oliver Twist vintage. That was enough to get him noticed beyond the dance aficionados. Three years later came Swan Lake, with its aggressive all-male swan corps, which was enough to gain him not only a degree of notoriety but also international fame and, more importantly, recognition that dance was seeing the emergence of a remarkable talent.

Now, with his company, New Adventures, in its 25th year, we have the final part of the trilogy and once again Bourne shows his remarkable gift for story telling, taking the fairy tale of the Sleeping Beauty and re-imaging it with the same elements.

We start, with a giant projected caption filling the stage, rather like an Imax version of a silent movie, with Carabosse, the fairy, who helps king Benedict, a very regal Edwin Ray and his Queen Eleanor, a majestic Kerry Biggin, to have a child, Princess Aurora.

The fairy is then forgotten and so unleashes dark forces upon the realm giving a vision of what will happen if Aurora is to prick her finger. In some versions it is with a needle or spindle from a spinning wheel, in one it was even a hyperdermic syringe; Bourne opts for the Brothers Grimm version and a prick from a rose thorn when she is 21 that will send her to sleep for a hundred years.

Count Lilac takes on Carabosse, the dark fairy

Her only hope is her secret love, the Royal Gamekeeper Leo, who seems to spend half his time with a wheelbarrow full of roses, so the chances of this romance ending well, at least the first time around, are a bit limited.

Cleverly to emphasise we are seeing into the future both Aurora and Leo are faceless forms.

The characterisationof the two leading characters perhaps lacks a little in some areas, we do not feel for Princess Aurora as much as for  Clara in The Nutcracker, for example, and we care more about the Prince in Swan Lake and his romantic torment  than the less dynamic Leo and his lost love.

Dominic North's Leo has some touching moments, particularly two pas de deux with Auroroa danced beautifully with the excited, girlish charm of a 21-year-old by Hannah Vassallo but he never seems to rise above being the hired palace hand, he never shows that despite his lowly birth, here is a man to be reckoned with; which, must be quickly added, is not North's fault, he danced his role admirably

By setting the start in 1890, the year of the first performance of the ballet incidentally, Bourne can bring the awakening scene bang up to date.

As always with Bourne's work there is an inventiveness. He perhaps does not create memorable dances but he does create memorable theatre and characters – and a new way of telling the same story.

In this case there were two twists, the first being the introduction of Carabosse's equally evil son Caradoc, both danced with a nice dollop of arrogant nastiness by Adam Maskell, who, as the pony-tailed glitzy rocker son really is the sort of bloke you don't want your daughter to come home with.  He wanders around with a black rose just in case he should bump into the odd Princess in line for a spot of maternal revenge.

His dark presence keeps the evil simmering nicely through the century or so of slumber.

Princess Aurora with her gamekeeper lover Leo . . . now where have we heard that before . . .

Then there is Leo. If he waits for his love to wake he will either be in an urn on her mantelpiece or about 120 and trying to remember who he is and  why he is there when she finally wakes up. Bourne wants it to essentially be a love story, with Aurora finding her true love from a century ago waiting for her when she wakes.

So how to keep him young and virile in a logical way. Answer? Vampires (this is a fairy tale remember).

Thus the King of the Fairies, Count Lilac, danced with passion and aggression against the evil of Carabosse and her son by Christopher Marney, turns out to have Count Dracula in his family tree somewhere along the line, or jugular in this case; so a little nibble on our lovelorn gamekeeper recruits him to the immortal undead and fangs will never the same again. He just has to remember to avoid garlic bread.

We have a final battle between good and evil and like all good fairy stories, everyone, or at least all the goodies – they are the ones with white wings, baddies, a la cowboy films, have wings that are black – live happily ever after.

One of the stars of the show was the puppet, or to be more accurate, several puppets, of first baby Aurora and later . . . but that would be giving the game away. The most complex puppet requires three puppeteers – another skill the dancers have had to learn – dressed in black velvet to be all but invisible, as she crawls around and even climbs curtains.

The puppet gives Aurora a personality from the opening scene and adds some nice touches of humour to set the tone for what, after all, is a love story and a triumph of good over evil.

A novel feature was the use of two travelators, those moving pavements that do the walking for you at airports, moving in opposite directions at the rear of the stage, producing fascinating movement all helping to emphasise we are in a land of make believe and fairy stories.

As always long time collaborator Les Brotherston's sets are just dazzling whether the opulent black and gold velvet draped palace, with columns holding up a ceiling detail stretching  right across the flies, to the elegant garden party with its stately home on the hill.

Caradoc, son of the dark fairy, tries to awaken the slumbering Aurora

There is a wonderful star lit forest that has grown up in the palace grounds during the century of sleep or the neon, scene of a dreamlike sleepwalking scene, one of Bourne's favourites, and, down-market, the tacky headquarters of the bad fairy lot – all beautifully lit by Paule Constable.

On opening night there were some minor sound  issues with the recorded score where a few feint background hums and hisses appeared from time to time although you could forgive almost anything with Tchaikovsky's  sumptuous symphonic music.

At 53 Bourne seems to be at the peak of his powers and with its glorious costumes, Brotherston again, and sets and some wonderful dancing this is the most balletic of his creations and a worthy final piece in his Tchaikovsky trilogy.

Roger Clarke


A Matthew and two Freds

IN one of the best attended Q&A sessions I can remember at the Hippodrome Matthew Bourne admitted that his ideas “sometimes appear odd to other people but they make sense to me.”

He told the audience: “I am always looking to tell a story in a different way” explaining there were already plenty of other versions of Swan Lake and he did not want to do just another version of what is a well-known and beautiful classical ballet.

The re-write brought a new element. “I wanted to find a way for Leo to be alive when she woke up so she did not fall in love with the first person she saw. It was essentially a love story and a vampire was the only way.”

He explained that when he creates he "imagines someone m the audience who knows nothing about the story or tye music. I am telling the story to that person."

But Sleeping Beauty took a lot of imagining before it got to that stage but now it is there it is a work he is proud of "with lovely music" and has he said "Why should this music only be used to tell one tale".

Bourne also revealed that his two great dance heroes were two Freds, Fred Astaire and (Sir) Frederick Ashton for his “variety, humour, glamour, abstract and storytelling”

And Astaire? “Astaire gives you a way into dance that no one else does whether just walking along or dancing over the furniture. He makes you feel anyone can dance”.

Next up for Bourne will be another tour of Swan Lake followed by his latest project Lord of the Flies, based on William Golding's classic novel. This was first produced in Glasgow in 2010 using eight New Adventure dancers and 20 young boys and men – aged 10-22 ( there are no girls sadly in Lord of the Flies).

The youngsters were not dancers and Bourne said some had not even set foot in a theatre before. The idea was to break down barriers that dance is elitist or technical and to show it can be enjoyed and appreciated by anyone.

That concept is planned to tour in 2014, including Birmingham Hippodrome, with Bourne creating a new show with a new community cast of youngsters at each venue. 


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