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 - 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.