SLEEPING BEAUTY: An interview with Matthew Bourne

Tickets: http://www.kennedy-center.org/events/?event=DODSC

Q: New Adventures’ productions of Nutcracker! and Swan Lake are two of the most popular dance productions ever created and have become classics in their own right, but these were created back in the early nineties. What prompted you to return to Tchaikovsky in 2012?

Following the success of my Nutcracker! and Swan Lake, it had obviously crossed my mind, on more than one occasion, that I should find a way of completing Tchaikovsky’s trilogy of ballet masterworks someday, but I had always struggled to hit on the perfect idea. Whilst musically brilliant and glorious, I had always found it a daunting thought to try and approach a score that was so associated with the pinnacle of classical ballet form and grandeur and to be honest, the story had always left me a little cold.

In the spring of 2011, the company and I were in Moscow with our production of Cinderella and I was offered the chance of a private tour of Tchaikovsky’s country retreat, just outside of the city in Kiln. At that time I was searching hard for an appropriate way to celebrate my company’s silver jubilee and was in need of inspiration, so I gladly accepted. Standing alone in the great composer’s bedroom, with its tiny iron bed in one corner and its simple wooden table at the window, it was easy to imagine the great man watching the changing seasons and writing some of the most unforgettable music ever composed. I decided in that moment, corny though it may sound, that this was a sign and I should make Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty my next project. What better way to celebrate our 25th birthday? I returned home to London with a waltz in my step and a summer of research stretching before me.

Q: As well as the legendary Tchaikovsky and Petipa ballet of 1890, there are many versions of the Sleeping Beauty story—from Perrault’s 1697 original, to the Brothers Grimm 1812 tale Little Briar Rose, to the most well-known re-telling of the myth in 1959 by Walt Disney (which also utilized an adapted version of Tchaikovsky’s score). Which of these influenced you the most when you started your research?

I started by reading all versions of the story that I could find. Of course, they all have much in common and in turn they all have big difference too. Perrault’s original has a very grisly, rarely remembered second half, in which Aurora’s children are almost served up as dinner for her new ogre stepmother! This I chose to ignore as it feels like two separate stories and indeed there is a theory that they are in fact two different tales tacked together. The Grimm version, known as Little Briar Rose is much closer to the story we all know and the Disney animated film version took more liberties than one might have expected; no 100 year sleep for example! I certainly took something from each of these versions but if one is approaching Sleeping Beauty as a piece of dance theatre then it is the music that Tchaikovsky wrote for his collaboration with choreographer Marius Petipa that must give the piece its structure. What the ballet score gives you that the fairy tale does not is reasons to dance or ideas for dance, fairy variations, a lengthy vision scene, a hunting scene and several pas de deux, trois and quatre! It dictates the action and adds emotion, drama and character. In fact it becomes the script.

Q: What are the challenges of creating a new interpretation of this centuries old fairy tale for contemporary audiences?

When I first looked at this story I asked myself what was it that made it less than satisfying as a narrative and two things were clear, in the ballet scenario at least; no love story and no narrative tension in the last act once Aurora has woken up. Unless you believe in love at first sight the love of Aurora for her Prince is very unconvincing, with the hero and heroine only really meeting at the very end of the story. It’s impossible to feel anything for them. Interestingly, Walt Disney, one of the 20th Century’s great storytellers, also recognized this flaw in the story for a modern audience, even in 1959. In Disney’s narrative, Aurora, as a young girl, meets her Prince, thinking he is a commoner and falls in love just before her fate is sealed with the prick of her finger and the century long sleep. The dilemma becomes how can the Prince break the spell and keep their love alive.

This creates a beautiful tragic love story and a logic and dramatic tension in one stroke. Thank you Walt!

Disney also recognized one of the central themes of the story; good versus evil. He built up the character of Carabosse (Magnificent in the Disney classic) to keep that central battle going right to the end of the story. The Tchaikovsky ballet creates a wonderfully malevolent musical world for Carabosse in the Prologue but then those themes barely appear again in the ballet and therefore the great character Carabosse is sidelined. Without giving too much away, I believe we have solved that narrative problem too with the introduction of another new character, Carabosse’s faithful son, Caradoc.

All versions of Sleeping Beauty begin with the lines “Once upon a time there was a King and Queen who had not been blessed with an heir” or “could not have a child” or some such phrase. I have taken this as the starting point of the tale and have tried to give the dark fairy Carabosse a more compelling reason to want to do harm to the child. Maybe the Royal couple went to the dark side to obtain a child to call their own? This, in turn, threw up lots of ideas about Aurora herself. Was she the child of an ordinary working family rather than a Royal Princess, a gypsy child? An interesting character formed in my mind – a feisty, nature-loving, wild child, happier running through the forest barefoot than the stuffy life of a Princess. In movement terms, and considering our timeline, as a young girl she could be an Isadora Duncan figure – new kind of forward looking emancipated young woman?

Q: Any Freudian or psychoanalytical influences come into play here?

The reason that these fairy tales and myths are still around and constantly re-invented is that they do still have things to say or reveal to us. As well as the classic good versus evil story, Sleeping Beauty is also a story about growing up and rebirth, what contemporary writers would call a “rites of passage” story. It is also full of fascinating symbolism. The prick of the finger and the letting of blood, are clearly symbolic of a young girl’s journey into womanhood. At the end of the story the “kiss” of true love and the eventual acceptance of the Prince, who has also had to prove his manhood, suggest that they are now both ready for physical love and fulfillment. The “sleep” also seems to symbolize that lethargic period in a teenager’s life when they don’t want to engage with the world and how the parents often want to ‘protect’ their young and prevent them from growing up too quickly.

One tends to think of these ideas as very modern concerns and thoughts but I was encouraged to read how Petipa’s original ideas for the famous “Rose Adage” in the ballet were saying just this! For those that know their classical ballet, the Rose Adage has today become all about the ballerina balancing on pointe, on one leg, with her arms above her head (an invention, incidentally of Dame Margot Fonteyn some 50 years or so after the ballet was created). Petipa actually took his inspiration from the traditions of commedia dell’arte in which a young man would present a rosebud to his beloved to represent their blossoming love. If she accepted, she was in turn declaring her interest. In Petipa’s original choreography Aurora takes a rose from each of her noble suitors but then throws them dismissively to the floor, as if to say “I’m not ready for love (or sex) yet”. In today’s more prettified versions, she is more likely to hand the roses to her mother, the Queen, who sniffs them sweetly. Quite a different meaning!

It is extraordinary to note that around the time of the premiere of the ballet in 1890, well over 50 percent of the population if asked the question - “Do you believe in fairies?”- probably would have answered, “yes”. Even by 1917, Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes, was supporting the existence of fairies at the bottom of the garden, supposedly captured in photographs by two young girls in the famous case at Cottingley. So I find it quite natural that in the 1890 ballet, the fairy community is invited into the human world and to the christening of the young Princess to give their blessings. Since our story eventually takes us into the present day, a time when very few believe in such things as fairies, I find it equally logical that they are no longer present; shut out in their own world waiting to be believed in again.

Q: Your new scenario takes us from the late Victorian period, through the Edwardian era, to the present day. Research must play a big part in the recreation of a period for you and your designer, Lez Brotherston?

One of the initial things that really attracted me about the potential of this story was the enormous timeline of the narrative. To make it really exciting, I felt immediately that we had to end up in the present day. By a process of working backwards, good luck would have it that we ended up with Aurora’s birth at the time of the creation of the ballet in 1890 and with her coming-of-age in the famously golden Edwardian summer of 1911.

This presented Lez with many challenges and the most costumes he has ever had to design for one of our pieces together! Lez has a genius for detail and a vast knowledge of historical costumes and clothing. He insists on correct period detail but also knows how to make those costume “dance”. As well as the specific eras that we are re-creating, it has also been a chance to create fantasy or supernatural figures and worlds, such as the possibly vampiric fairies and the “land of the sleepwalkers”. Finally coming bang up to date with designs inspired by the latest catwalk fashions, the wardrobe and wigs departments have never been so busy!

Similarly to the demands on the design department, the recreation of the different eras has meant that the company has had to be very versatile, as we have attempted to give a flavor of the dance styles of each period. Act One, set in 1890, the year of the Petipa ballet’s creation, takes on the feeling of a classical ballet complete with Fairy variations (solos) with more than a passing nod to the Petipa originals. Act Two is set in 1911, when the Waltz was still king but we suggest the introduction of ‘new dance crazes’ from America, inspired by the legendary dancing partnership of Vernon and Irene Castle; “The Castle Walk” and “The Maxine” in particular. Act Three, in which Leo (our Prince figure) enters the “land of the sleepwalkers” where Aurora is trapped until saved by a kiss, is led by our heroine’s personality and a free spirited dance inspired by Isadora Duncan. Act Four, set in the present day, finds Aurora about to be wed; the movement is boldly confrontational, confident, sensual and dangerous. The unsettling atmosphere suggestive more of a cult ritual than a fairy tale wedding!

Q: As with all New Adventures productions, this Sleeping Beauty has many surprising twists to the familiar tale as well as a host of new characters that owe nothing to the existing fairy tales, films or ballets. Are you worried that you are sometimes talking liberties with a much-loved story? How is it possible to be “faithful” to a story that already has so many well-known versions that are all so different?

I said right from the beginning of this project that whatever logic I applied to it, or whatever inventions me and my collaborators came up with, it must still be a Fairy Story beginning with “Once Upon a Time.” As I said before, I think that these stories are still around possibly because they are simple enough to allow for any number of interpretations. Indeed, the Sleeping Beauty tale has inspired not just Disney and Petipa but also erotic novels by Anne Rice and dark stories by Angela Carter. It’s true that I may have taken a few liberties with Tchaikovsky, which I hope he will forgive, as he, above all others, is the reason why I had to make this piece. As this completes my trilogy of the maestro’s only three complete ballets, I humbly dedicate this production to his memory.