Showing posts with label Matthew Bourne. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Matthew Bourne. Show all posts

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Bourne's Beauty blazes bright

Now here is a cracker for Christmas. Some 20 years after choreographer Matthew Bourne (right) first leapt into the Tchaikovsky waters and swam, with The Nutcracker, he has completed the classic trilogy with his long-awaited Sleeping Beauty, now on at Sadler's Wells.

I'll admit it's not impossible that seeing it 24 hours after Robert le Diable made me enjoy it all the more; Tchaikovsky doesn't half sound great after Meyerbeer. But - like Bourne's legendary Swan Lake and his inspired, wartime-London Cinderella - this Sleeping Beauty, performed by Bourne's New Adventures, pulls you into its own world from the start.

The secret is, of course, the music. That's where Bourne's magic often lies: in his passion for, and understanding of, the emotional resonances of a score that sometimes aren't articulated in the original choreography. Rather touchingly, he has dedicated the show to the memory of Tchaikovsky. And though it's been cut - including interval, it's just two and a quarter hours long - Bourne has an unerring way of homing in on the bits that everyone adores and making the most of the drama in them, elements that the original choreographer, Marius Petipa, sometimes prefers to mask. The tension in the storytelling is plentiful, and there are plenty of laughs, too. Designs are by Bourne's chief collaborator Lez Brotherson: sumptuous, detailed and glowing with rich colour to match that of the music, with fantastical shards of lilac and green for the fairies, exquisite Edwardian gowns for the birthday party, scarlet and ebony catwalk-style for the weird final act...

 We start in 1890. The king and queen are childless - and it's Carabosse who remedies the situation. Aurora therefore is a changeling, perhaps stolen from the woods or fields - though I read it at first as Carabosse being the surrogate mother to end all surrogate motherhood. This not-so-royal Aurora has a wild nature and the curtain rises on mayhem in the nursery as the baby, brilliantly puppeteered, crawls everywhere, teasing her minders and climbing the curtains. The fairies (left) - three of whom are male, Count Lilac (Christopher Marney) included - sneak in by night beneath a vast moon and deliver their solos, watched by the fascinated puppet-baby: they endow her with such qualities as ardour, resilience and, with finger-pointing Golden Vine Petipa references, temperament in the form of the fairy Tantrum (the terrific Liam Mower, once an original-cast Billy Elliot on the West End stage). But the king has not shown his gratitude to Carabosse and she arrives for her revenge - her prophecy acted out by its future protagonists, with a blank mask over Aurora's face. The vision produces the visceral terror any parents would feel upon being told their lovely daughter will die in agony. For once you realise the power of Carabosse's curse. This isn't just a nasty fairy story; it is the worst thing that could happen to them.

Count Lilac saves the day. He's a vampire. Lilacula? The Lilac Fairy is usually the symbol of all that's good; vampires, on the whole, are not. This takes a little getting used to. But we can cope with that.

Fast-forward to the golden Edwardian summer of 1911, and Aurora is fighting to get her stockings off. Most Auroras are wedded to their pointe shoes; we watch their Rose Adage balances for any hint of wobbling ankle. But this Aurora - danced by the flexible and radiant Hannah Vassallo - is inspired by Isadora Duncan and she leaps free, wondrous, expressive and barefoot. Besides, she's hiding her childhood sweetheart, Leo the gardener, under her bed. The party is in the garden; the waltz's props are not garlands, but tennis rackets. Aurora misbehaves. Then into the gathering walks Vladimir Jurowski...

No, no, not really - it's Caradoc, son of the deceased Carabosse, played by the same dancer, the sultry Ben Bunce, ready to take revenge on his mother's behalf. Dark, sensual, sexy and evil, he brings with him a black rose. Aurora is both attracted and fearful. The rose seems to intoxicate her when she sniffs it. The Rose Adage becomes the dramatic climax. It starts as a sweet evocation of young love for her and Leo - Dominic North, whose appealing, gauche manner is underpinned during the course of the show by some serious technical virtuosity - but turns to tragedy when the black rose's thorn does the inevitable. (Editor's note to Petipa: in a land where spindles are banned on pain of death, how come your Aurora is allowed to handle roses?) Poor Leo, who's been tending the palace rosebeds, is blamed. Once again Count Lilac must save the day. But how is Leo to stay alive 100 years to be there for Aurora when she wakes up? A few lilac teeth in the neck sort that out.

A hundred years later, it's 2011. Leo, emerging from a tent by the locked gates of the palace, now has wings; he's one of the immortals/undead. Lilac gives him the key to the portals and they enter the Land of Sleepwalkers, where the Vision Scene is alive and well in the starlit woods.

Tchaikovsky's phenomenal sleep music - one of his most magical passages - finds Caradoc inside the palace, trying in vain to awaken Aurora. She doesn't respond to his kisses. There's a fast-asleep pas de deux, a la Romeo and Juliet tomb scene. The awakening itself becomes a showdown between Leo and Caradoc - and it certainly doesn't end the way you expect. Instead, the plot thickens...

Cue 2011, and something more akin to Eyes Wide Shut than Puss in Boots. Caradoc now has his own logo, and possibly his own fashion label. His red and black nightclub and its leather couches are preparing not so much for a wedding as for a satanic ritual, or worse. Aurora, zombified, arrives in wedding dress, a sacrificial victim (above).

Into this scene slinks the hapless Leo, ready to rescue his beloved. Caradoc, horribly transformed into a bare-chested Dracula with wings, towers over her, ready to bite or rape or kill - and Leo stabs him through the heart with his own logo. Not a wooden stake, but we can deal with that too, and it says plenty about logos. Does this show innocence and everlasting true love winning the day over the evils of fly-by-night fashion, sleb cultcha and materialism? Hope so.

The great pas de deux music signals Leo's reunion with the sobered-through-experience Isadora Aurora: freed from stylised classicism, it allows them unfettered expression, and I don't think I'm the only one who shed a quiet tear at the liberation of the lovers, Aurora's feet and Tchaikovsky himself. Ultimately the couple produce their own bewinged puppet-baby. "They all lived happily ever after" acquires certain new resonances in the context of the undead.

It's brilliant, beautiful, utterly bananas, overwhelming in its tenderness, dazzling in its imaginative freedom - and it works because it all springs from love and respect for the original. Admittedly, sometimes one wants more focus to the sculptural aspects of Bourne's choreography; if/when I missed Petipa, it was the great corps-de-ballet set pieces plus the fairies' ensemble of the prologue. Still, the concepts mostly work well: the waltz is perfect Edwardiana, the red and black Polonaise scarily coordinated for contemporary decadence. The highlights are the pas de deux, which give the lovers freedom to relish the music's blazing emotion: Aurora takes flying, barelegged leaps into Leo's arms; their bodies eat up the space in almost more than three dimensions as they spiral about the stage.

Perhaps it depends what you want from a Sleeping Beauty and how attached you are to Petipa's original. If the answers to those are respectively "a long evening including every piece Tchaikovsky provided" and "very", this mightn't be for you. (It wasn't really for The Arts Desk's Ismene Brown.) But for others, beside fresh air such as this, Petipa - astonishing though he will always remain - could feel just a little fettered and fussy. I loved it to pieces.

The music was recorded specially for the show and is rendered warm and passionate, with lovely violin solos from Gina McCormack. I'd prefer it to be live, but I guess you can't have everything.

Apart from that, the announcement this week of the Duchess of Cambridge's pregnancy couldn't have been better timed.

The Sleeping Beauty continues at Sadler's Wells until 26 January, then tours.







Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Bourne again: Swan Lake in 3D



Swan Lake is making a splash again - this time in 3D. The other week I trotted off to Islington where Matthew Bourne's dance company New Adventures was in rehearsal. It was April, but felt like December... so Matthew and I huddled beside a gas heater in the back room and had a good talk about that Swan Lake and how he and Ross MacGibbon went about turning it into the 3D movie that hits cinemas worldwide from today. Besides, I always wondered what made him think up the concept. And now we know - and it's good. My feature is in The Independent today.

Happy 25th birthday to the company! Don't miss them at Sadler's Wells in the "Early Adventures" triple bill from 21 May. Full info on Swan Lake in 3D and the cinema screenings here.


Friday, May 04, 2012

The Flying Duchen

Let's get to the heart of this right away. How can we "do" Romanticism in an age of cynical post-modern irony? I don't pretend to have the answer, but the question is a hefty one. And Jonathan Kent's new production of The Flying Dutchman at ENO asks it full on. That is not the least reason it is so effective. Whether or not the director intended to do so, he's sunk his teeth into one of the big artistic conundrums of today. It deserves to be brought into the open.


We see Senta first as a child in pink pyjamas, watching the waves through a giant skylight; she craves her father's affection, but he is unable to deliver any and pushes off to sea, leaving her with a book of fairy tales for company. The Dutchman manifests as her imagining, her interior living, if you like, of such a fairy tale - as children do, as we all do if only we remember, casting her father one of its characters, and the Steersman too - who sings his quiet song with rapt nostalgia and falls asleep on the floor, where little Senta covers him tenderly with her duvet. The Dutchman and his ship arrive in a terrific coup-de-theatre, he in full Mr Darcy getup, while the ship wouldn't disgrace Errol Flynn's in The Sea Hawk. And Daland's eagerness to marry the stranger off to his daughter without noticing that said stranger is one of the Undead is all too convincing, because Daland is a stranger to love and values nothing but money.

Senta, meanwhile, grows up to be Orla Boylan - except that she doesn't. She's still living that fairy tale, her emotional world twisted into an alternative reality by the lack of emotional substance around her. She works in a factory making ships in bottles - the set (designed by Paul Brown) is magnificent, with a vast window and plenty of wood suggesting past glories for this Norwegian one-ghost suburb. Her refuge is the image of the Dutchman: her own longing, her own clinging to belief in the redemptive power of love and compassion. There's none of that in her real world. Even Erik (sung by Stuart Skelton, who is an absolute knockout of a Heldentenor) is no answer. He's a security guard at the factory and there's a hint of violence, born of frustration, in his treatment of her; this big guy doesn't know his own strength. And the other girls pick on her: she's the mildly deranged fat lump in the pink dress (Primark?) who pooh-poohs their sluttishness.

And then the boys come back from sea, they have a piss-up in the factory and they try to gang-rape her. In the song to the Steersman they're egging him on, as their leader, to do the deed. Remember that nostalgic first song he had in act 1? Everything now is inside-out and upside-down. The ghost ship chorus - beamed in by amplification from somewhere offstage (a bit of a pity soundwise) comes to Senta's aid and scares everyone off, but the event pushes her over the edge and, exhausted and already dead within, she breaks a beer bottle and stabs herself with it. She is destroyed by the society in which she lives. Jonathan Kent shows us the death of a soul.

The performances match the power of the staging. The chorus, for a start, is possibly the best I've ever heard at ENO. Orla Boylan's Senta gives everything in her Ballade; there may be issues about pacing and stamina, as in the scene with Erik she began to sound strained and tired, but she summoned reserves of strength for the final scene that made her Senta seem cousin not so much to Isolde (as Wagner later saw her, rewriting the ending post-Tristan - we got the early version at ENO) but Brunnhilde, facing a test of fire instead of water.

Clive Bayley is a magnificent and all too believable Daland; James Creswell as the Dutchman is strong and even-toned, though could maybe use more variety in vocal colour to put across the emotional content, rather than relying too heavily on diction - it's good to hear all the words, but it sometimes distorted the ends of his phrases. Tenor Robert Murray made much of the Steersman aria, which in the grand scheme of the staging acquired extra dramatic significance. But Skelton just about steals the show, despite his character having too little to do. He tweeted the other day that he was off to New York to sing in Die Walkure at very short notice (jumping in for Kaufmann). Lucky Met.

Still, there's big stuff happening at home, and it is happening most of all down the pit. This is Ed Gardner's first Wagner. And from the moment the lights go off and the orchestra plunges into the deep end, we plunge with them. They grab us by the throat and don't let us go for the full 135 minutes (no interval, thanks). The intensity is fabulous, both at the opera's wildest moments and its stillest; the pacing is excellent, passionate, convincing. This seemed the case after that glorious Rosenkavalier a few months back, but now there's no doubt about it: ENO is busy growing a great conductor.

So, I was wondering how we do romanticism in an anti-romantic age. And then I went to see a preview screening of the 3D film of Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake, which is being released into cinemas worldwide on 15 May starring Richard Winsor (and very good it is). And there's the prelude. The child prince in bed, in his pyjamas. His mother comes in; he reaches out to her, she backs away. He has a fuzzy swan by way of comforter. He has a nightmare vision of the real swan. And the action commences. Remind you of anything?

Now, I'm not suggesting for one moment that this Dutchman production borrows anything from anybody, but the general atmosphere and logic of the concept is quite prevalent enough for different directors to arrive at the same scenario from contrasting positions. The Flying Dutchman story has plenty in common with that of Swan Lake. The lead character's fantasy world becomes his/her reality, encroaches on actual reality, then destroys him/her.

And today, we can't take it on its own terms, the way Wagner or Tchaikovsky intended; we have to interpret and explain it, because it seems nobody will buy into it otherwise. If a twisted mind through lack of a parent's affection is becoming the dramatic cliche of today (taking over from child abuse, which has been used ad nauseam), there may be a good reason for it.

It's one of those odd things about Romanticism, though, that it involved plenty of cynicism. It was the composers, not the writers, whose senses of humour and awareness of irony sometimes fell flat. The Flying Dutchman is based on a story by Heinrich Heine, whose bite is much fiercer than his eloquent bark. In Heine, the ending of the tale - the suicide of "Mrs Flying Dutchman" - is cynical as hell: the only way a woman can be faithful to this man unto death, he suggests, is if she dies right away. Wagner makes a virtue out of this, but that's not how Heine wrote it. Just as Schumann, setting Heine's songs, avoids the razor edge of this poet's fearsome blade and refuses to laugh or sneer with him, so Wagner goes a stage further and creates his own philosophy out of it - perfumed, feverish and egotistical it may be, but it's alive and well and blazes out of the music. Heine, one suspects, would have been livid.

And Romanticism? Its music still has the strongest appeal to audiences for classical music - not all, of course, but a distinct majority. You want "popular classics"? You get Tchaikovsky. So it is not dead. Twisted, certainly, but defunct, not at all. Most of us still, somewhere, believe in the redemptive power of love - don't we? - and the current craze for vampire movies suggests that maybe we even want to believe, at some level, in the supernatural. But the destruction of a soul through lack of love, and that lack of love, and tenderness, and compassion, and kindness, and idealism, as a comment on our society, is taking hold. Maybe we should take notice.