One thing’s for certain: Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty is utterly gorgeous. His is a playful take on the classic story that imaginatively creates new scenarios within Tchaikovsky’s nimble score. This luscious and romantic production boasts gothic vampires with wings and a hero who – much like Rory from Doctor Who – waits outside his lover’s prison for a century.
Bourne cannot believe that Aurora would fall immediately in love with the stranger who has kissed her and so he creates a conceit to enable the man she already loves, the Gamekeeper, to become immortal. Here the bad fairy is a vampire who seduces Aurora and the good fairy is one who turns Leo into a vampire so that he can kiss her awake.
For the Royal Opera House crowd this may seem quite a narrative departure. But, as with much of Bourne’s work, he is unable to let go of tradition completely, he dallies with the radical but this is in no way a full-blown break with the past. In the end, his version of the story returns to what we have come to expect; it’s almost as if Bourne appears to lose faith in his witty alternative reality. His final image – of Sleeping Beauty returning to her bed after a passionate and almost deadly seduction by the dark fairy – feels like a subconscious apology to the establishment for playing around with her in the first place.
Bourne’s failure to utterly defy expectation feels a bit disappointing, while his refusal to fully rewrite the rulebook is frustrating. But there remains a sense of mischievousness to his work. Bourne’s hybrid choreography of classical ballet and contemporary dance never lets you get comfortable as each movement subverts the next. He may not fully destroy any icons but this sometime iconoclast has a great time mixing things up with gleeful irreverence.
The resulting production is Tchaikovsky meets True Blood, full of surreal collages of pop culture imagery. Hannah Vassallo’s Princess Aurora is a both prima ballerina and a spoilt member of the Downton Abbey clan. Her hero, Dominic North, while on his way to rescue her with his cherubic vampire wings and sneakers, brings to mind the Greek goddess of Victory, Nike. Lez Brotherston’s design and costumes opulently evoke the style of Guillermo del Toro and Tim Burton. For Bourne and his cohorts anything is fair game, making a fabulously rich mise-en-scene for a post-modern audience to gorge on.
The cast dance their parts with flair and panache. Although he doesn’t go so far as to have a male Aurora or female ‘Prince’ – more’s the pity – Bourne plays with gender expectation in his pairings and solo pieces. This is an art form where the tyranny of the ballerina is paramount, but Bourne continues to chip away at this notion. Men perform delicate solos with an elegance and neatness of movement not usually allowed to them while the women are able to leap and lift.
Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty may lack the purity of his all-male Swan Lake but he presents a sumptuous cyclorama to accompany one of the most beautiful scores in the classical ballet repertoire. Ultimately, however, I wanted him to push things that little bit further; I wanted Aurora to wake up with puncture marks in her neck and in this re-imagining all we get is the obligatory kiss.