Monday, November 25, 2013

Bourne's Gothic Beauty (Consider Me Bitten & Smitten!)

Note: I've been wanting to blog properly on Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance for months now, rather than just mention it on Facebook or in passing here, but have felt so overwhelmed by all I wanted to share and say I've never finished my various drafts. Yesterday, however, I finally got to see the show in person and if I don't - at the very least - tell you how truly wonderful this is, I'll never forgive myself! So here goes...

A very special event (for me) just happened this past weekend: I just took my son to his first ballet! And it couldn't have been better (OK, maybe just slightly - but I'll get to that in a bit). When I heard word of Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance and read a little on his approach to both story and staging, I knew, if I got the chance, I would do my best to go see it and take my family. It turned out to be a great idea. The production and performance all lived up to all the rave reviews I'd read and was worth every cent. There were even multiple homages to the original Sleeping Beauty ballet if you knew what to look for (which couldn't have made this balletomane happier).
The following trailer was created for the specially filmed cinema presentations in Australia this year (sadly, it appears New Directions couldn't make it Downunder on their tour during 2013). Have a peek at the gorgeous! (By the way, if this came to cinemas here, I'd TOTALLY buy tickets to see that too):
✒ ✒  ✒ (click the "Read more" link below this line for lots more magical pics & my review) ✒ ✒ ✒  ✒ 

Bourne's Sleeping Beauty is still very recognizably the fairy tale we're familiar with, it's still ballet and he still uses the Tchaikovsky score. The differences, though, take this production from the usual to something very different. The hint is in the tagline of the ballet's title" "A Gothic Romance". The result, is truly magical, fits very well with the current darker trend in retelling fairy tales, and all without losing that childhood magic so many people love, especially with regard to story ballets. The fact Mr. Bourne combined these aspects so well is a testament to his skill.
While I'll admit I'm a sucker for excellent stagecraft and creative storytelling, it's clear the entire audience was quite enchanted, laughing, sighing and gasping at all the appropriate moments. (The baby  puppet was a stroke of - often comic - genius and won everyone over.) My favorite moments were often the most simple and used a combination of lighting and the dancer's timing to great effect.

The set up made for interesting dynamics right from the outset as the royal couple were only able to have a child due to the magical intervention of a certain fairy. Unlike other stories where the Queen talks to a frog, or sometimes a fairy she finds in the garden, the one whom they beseech in their desperation is the infamous Carabosse. From this angle, it's very believable that this dark fairy would take such offense to not being invited to the child's christening...

I scanned the first page of the Director's note from the program as it explains Mr. Bourne's sensibilities regarding how he chose to tell the story and why.
(The program has another page of Director's notes but I thought the above section would be of particular interest to fairy tale folk.)
Chances are by now that you've figured out this ballet has vampires. It's true. It does. But don't let that put you off! These aren't your typical Dracula incarnations, nor Twilight adaptations but come more from the fact that the story spans one hundred and twenty-one years and involves the motifs of roses, pricking one's finger and blood. It was clear enough for my six year old to understand without being scared but layered enough that the adult themes were present and obvious if you looked for them.
The other important aspect is that this is a real love story, spanning a great deal of time. Aurora in this version,wakes up "today" (2013) which means the story begins in 1890, right around the time when the first ballet production of Sleeping Beauty was written and born. The costumes, backdrops and choreography change to accommodate the time periods/eras but still feel part of the same world, which is lovely too. (For balletomanes and dance mavens, there are a lot of historical dance nods throughout the production, both with regard to style and motifs as well as choreography and costume. It's pretty neat to recognize.)
Aurora's true love also isn't a prince, which complicates things somewhat as well. Love and passion is juxtaposed with marriage and duty on multiple levels, throughout the entire story, with the "present day" sequences having more to say on the subject than first appears, including the pleasing result that both can coexist to result in happiness (thank goodness).

(And yes, I should mention, in case you were worried, this ballet does indeed have a happy ending, complete with the words "happily ever after" on the curtain at the end.)

While I greatly appreciated that Bourne turned his Sleeping Beauty into a Gothic-type love story that actually made sense, I was surprised to find he had acknowledged Disney's own observations regarding the same issues with the original literary tales (both Perrault and Grimms) lack of true love (other than the instant-version, which I have a lot of difficulty in buying, especially with regard to Sleeping Beauty (see Director's notes above). Though Bourne and Disney amplified the villainous fairy Carabosse (Maleficent in Disney) in different ways, both revisionists felt it necessary to have something - or someone - very powerful actively working against true love in order to create tension in the narrative and ultimately provide a satisfying ending. I think both succeeded. My only beef with disney's version is Aurora herself is so passive - the most passive of all the Disney princesses - that I didn't really like her. Aurora in Bourne's ballet is far more active and daring, and we get more glimpses into her personality via the dreamscape sequence as well, and as a result, despite still needing help escaping in the end, is a far more obvious and satisfying match for her true love who worked for a century to find her and free her.
The ballet is contemporary so doesn't use (many) pointe shoes or tutus but the storytelling is incredibly expressive and clear, with a good amount of mime balanced with a lot of wonderful dancing. The choreography for the fairy variations is so expressive it was easy to imagine which fairy was bestowing which gift, with a lot of room for individual interpretation. The production makes full use of "theater magic" using silhouettes, moving walkways, stage levels, multiple scrims and curtains, imaginative lighting, backdrops and props and doesn't skimp on the scale. The costumes were beautiful, magical and otherworldly and lent themselves well to both traditional Petipa-inspired choreography variations and poses and more modern movements and silhouettes.
Here are some additional details from another "theater regular"s review HERE:
The sets and costumes, both designed by Lez Brotherston, were phenomenal! 
Costume design sketch
 Brotherston had to cope with the changing eras throughout the storyline as the ballet started in 1890 (Act I), took place in 1911 with Aurora’s coming of age party (Act II), and finally travelled 100 years into the future to 2011 (Acts III & IV).  Like Swan Lake, but unlike Sylvia, the costumes were not traditional ballet tutus and tights, but rather beautifully constructed dresses and suits.  The designer deals with the change in time superbly, as the costumes after the intermission still reference the past, while utilizing modern garb such as skinny jeans and sneakers.  In the set, the use of mirrors on either side of the stage give the illusion of a much larger space, and heighten the mysterious and magical feeling as the faeries danced on conveyer belt platform, gracefully transporting from one side of the stage to the other.  The lighting design by Paule Constable illuminated the stage as if the moon were truly hovering in the foggy sky and as if the sun was really shining on Aurora’s outdoor coming of age party.
The only thing missing for me was the lack of a live orchestra. I do think live orchestral performance makes a big difference to a ballet production as well as the overall audience experience but very often these days, if a production is large scale, complicated and very theatrical, the limited funds are usually spent - in addition to the dancers' needs - in transporting the staging, props, backdrops and costumes from venue to venue, rather than on paying more performers.

Despite the lack of live music, I highly recommend this production. The story, costumes, lighting, staging, choreography, execution.. all is done with professional finesse, feels fresh and classic all at once and remains magical and fairy tale like throughout. I would happily see it again if I had the chance.

You can find tour details for New Directions (Matthew Bourne's company) HERE and learn more about this Gothic beauty of an experience HERE

No doubt this will become part of the regular repertoire now but should it be too long a wait before the tour comes to where you are, you can now get it on DVD HERE and Blu-ray HERE.

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