Sleeping Beauty—A classic in every respect
In the pantheon of great classical ballets, Sleeping Beauty sits with Cinderella, Coppelia, Giselle, La Sylphide, Romeo and Juliet, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake.
In the annals of contemporary choreography, Matthew Bourne is firmly established as re-inventor, re- interpreter, re-imaginer second to none. Therefore, bringing his Tchaikovsky trilogy to completion, after Nutcracker! and Swan Lake, is a satisfying and long-awaited dance dream brought to life. Styling it a ‘Gothic Romance for all ages’ set in 1890 when ‘fairies, vampires and decadent opulence’ fed the popular imagination, suggests the typical, innovative Bourne approach to keeping audiences on their toes.
Origins of the tale
The original story goes back into the mists of folklore and legend. The Ninth Captain’s Tale in the 1001 Nights; Perceforce (1528); Sun Moon and Talia by Giambattista Basile (1575-1632); The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood by Charles Perrault (1697) and Little Brier-Rose by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm all contain elements of what we now recognize as the fabled Sleeping Beauty.
The story is good against evil, darkness defeated by light. The account of the innocent young woman condemned through the ‘fault’ of others to sleep beyond her era, awakened by a young, handsome new life force is both appealing and accessible. It has inspired and fascinated all ages across the generations through drama, music, dance, film and pantomime. In the 19th century, it was the popularity, particularly in England, of the harlequinade, the extravaganza, the burlesque and what became the pantomime that led to this fairy tale with a happy ending being in such popular demand. Sleeping Beauty fitted that bill in every respect and established itself as a firm favorite.
It was the pantomime that gave the story the simple device of waking the sleeping heroine with a kiss, though darker versions have included rape and pregnancy of the young girl. There have been versions which have adapted other tales and tagged them on, such as Sleeping Beauty and the Beast (1900).
It is probably the case that pantomime also introduced elements of comedy into the story, although as panto is derived from the Italian Commedia dell’arte, that’s no surprise. Bourne picks up on comedy time and again in all his works.
To describe somebody as a ‘sleeping beauty’ is to suggest a time-wasting daydreamer. There is a rare ‘Sleeping Beauty’ condition (Kleine-Levin Syndrome) where sufferers experience long sleep episodes.
In the expressive arts where ideas feed off each other, this story is continually adapted and changed, yet remains at its heart, a simple narrative with which people can identify or use to escape reality or both at once.
That the composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky should be drawn to the tale is not surprising, despite the lukewarm welcome given to his earlier Swan Lake. He put the folk tale of the beautiful sleeping maiden into a ballet in prologue and three acts, first performed in St Petersburg in 1890. The evil and good leitmotifs are maintained to thread the plot together and to link the music with the movement.
It took nine years to be premiered in Moscow by the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre and then followed significant stagings at La Scala, Milan (1896), Alhambra Theatre, London (1921), Philadelphia (1937), Royal Opera House, London (1946), with London Festival Ballet in 1968 and 1992’s reworking in Basel with a new narrative around Anna Anderson’s claim to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia.
Today, a version of Sleeping Beauty is worked or re- worked in one medium or another on average every week of the year somewhere in the world.
Bourne and ballet
Matthew Bourne is a worldwide head-turner – someone who has attracted countless skeptics to the world of dance – and converted them to its joys! He is undoubtedly someone who shatters stereotypes, makes huge technical demands on his performers and who is constantly restless to explore and push new boundaries. Swan Lake with its all male swans is but one example of breaking the walls of convention and expectancy.
As a postmodern choreographer, he is eclectic in his influences that range from old films to musical theater. And he collaborates with his designers, composer, technical team and dancers in ways unheard of in post generations.
In creating his choreography, he counts the score as he hears it rather than how a musician would read it, allowing him to follow the emotional journey of the music, which is recorded specifically for his productions.
So just what is it, this Sleeping Beauty? Fairytale? Yes. Folk legend? Of course. Ballet? Naturally. In Bourne’s hands it is all of that and still more. It’s a performing art for yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Similarities and differences
Comparing the traditional story with the plot synopsis of Bourne’s version some key similarities and differences become apparent.
Like most traditional fairy tales, Bourne’s interpretation has the similar opening “Once upon a time…” However in the New Adventures version of the story, the original prologue has become Act One. Like the classic tale, the King and Queen wish for a child, which is granted to them, although in Bourne’s version this child is brought to them by Carabosse, the evil fairy. In keeping with the traditional story line, we are also introduced to the fairies who leave gifts to protect the baby Aurora. In Bourne’s version these fairies take on different characteristics to those in other versions. The Tchaikovsky score from the Petipa Ballet is central to Bourne’s production. However, Bourne has changed the order to reflect the plot adaptations he has made. The music has been specially recorded and layered with sound effects.
One of the key differences in Bourne’s version is the portrayal of romance. We see Aurora’s love Leo, the royal gamekeeper which is reciprocated. In most of the traditional tales including the Petipa Ballet, once the Prince awakens the Princess, they immediately fall in love having never met: “Very unconvincing unless you believe in love at first sight.” Bourne wanted a more realistic love story that the audience can buy into. This is something that the Disney film also incorporates as Prince Phillip and Aurora fall in love before her fate is sealed. However in the Disney version, the Prince breaks this spell before much time has passed. As Bourne wanted to keep to the original pause of 100 years, he was then faced with the challenge of creating a way for Leo still to stay alive. The Lilac Fairy becomes Count Lilac, a vampire fairy who bites Leo giving him eternal life. Leo does not age and he and Aurora can continue their love when he awakens her from her 100-year slumber. Having set the opening in 1890 and Aurora’s coming of age in 1911, Bourne brings his version up to date in 2011 with a contemporary set and costumes.
Another main change to the plot is the introduction of the character Caradoc who is Carabosse’s son. In Bourne’s version, Carabosse dies and it is her son who carries out his mother’s curse and seals Aurora’s fate. In Bourne’s production both characters are played by the same (male) dancer and played by a male dancer.
In most classic tales except the Perrault version, the story ends with the Prince kissing Aurora and waking her up. In Bourne’s version, there is an additional Act Four where Leo is taken away before Aurora realizes it is he who has kissed her and she is tricked into a wedding with Caradoc. Although Bourne’s version ends with the famous line, “and they all live happily ever after” which in his version they do, the story is far from a lighthearted fairy tale. The character of Carabosse and Caradoc are especially dark and the final act incorporates a more cult-like, sacrificial ceremony before Aurora is saved by Leo.