British impresario Matthew Bourne brought his dance juggernaut, New Adventures, to our nation’s capital this past week with Sleeping Beauty, one of his latest attempts to rework classic ballets for contemporary audiences. The company is touring the U.S. and, leaving aside what the marketing tell us, the first thing to understand about Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty is this: it is not a ballet. It is a highly theatrical dance drama about vampires, using Tchaikovsky’s score for the ballet Sleeping Beauty as background music. The choreography is a mishmash of styles, including modern dance, hip hop, martial arts, Tai Chi, contemporary, ballroom, and Bollywood, with a few ballet steps thrown in for good measure. If you loved the Twilight series, you will probably like this. If not, don’t waste your money.
Matthew Bourne bills himself as a choreographer, but his official biography notes he didn’t take an actual dance class until he was 22. That fits. If the messy dance sequences in this production are any indication, he’s a shrewd impresario—like Diaghilev—with a talent for aggregating audience-pleasing trends, rather than inventing new dance movements. His chief creation seems to be a lucrative new niche in the entertainment industry: classic ballets and film stories translated into highly theatrical dance dramas that are “updated” with edgy—and frequently outrageous—twists. His enterprises are apparently huge money makers; the Kennedy Center program notes that Bourne’s productions are now Britain’s chief dance export.
Yes, the heroine of Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty is still a young girl who pricks her finger, falls asleep, and is eventually awakened with a kiss. But that’s where the similarity with The Sleeping Beauty fairy tale ends. In Bourne’s drama, Aurora is wild child of questionable parentage adopted by a wealthy, noble couple. Her “prince” is now the gardener—she makes out with him in the bushes and, of course, her parents disapprove. Bourne has changed Aurora’s fairy godmothers into winged “good” vampires, along the way creating new male characters that give him a chance to camp up the production with lots of shirtless guys sporting 6-pack abs. In fact, the big moment in the final act comes when Caradoc, the Dracula look-a-like villain, throws off his Bela Lugosi cape to reveal himself as sexy and shirtless in jeans, with tattoos across his chest and giant black wings. Think Angels in America meets Dancing with the Stars. Alas, Caradoc is stabbed to death at the end of the show by Count Lilac, formerly known as the Lilac Fairy.
The steam-punk inspired costumes for the fairy godmothers—oops, make that winged vampires—cover up a lot of sloppiness on the part of the dancers. Despite the program’s boast that Bourne’s company “is widely recognized as the finest group of actor and dancers working in the United Kingdom today” (which will come as a surprise to the Royal Ballet and the Royal Shakespeare Company), much of the dancing on opening night—with the exception of Hannah Vassallo as Aurora—was undistinguished.
In addition, the inspiration for the movement itself looked like it came from the gym, rather than the dance studio. There were Tai Chi and martial arts stances and arm positions, along with squatting, dropping to the floor, pointing, throwing people back and forth, lifting, bumping and grinding, waving of arms and whirling about in circle patterns. Occasionally, ballet steps and jumps were thrown in, but more often than not they were executed awkwardly. In fact, I couldn’t find much resembling coherent dance patterns, with the exception of actual ballroom dances such as the Viennese Waltz and the Castle Walk in Act II. Several of the solos in Act One tried to reference Petipa’s famous divertissements from the original Sleeping Beauty ballet. But they were so over the top and exaggerated that they looked like parody to me. Then there was the conveyor belt at the back of the set, moving dancers back and forth across the stage. This made no sense except as an extraneous embellishment to impress the audience and add more movement, as if dancers running around on their own weren’t enough.
It is ironic that the best thing about the first half of the show had nothing to do with dance; it was the puppet representing the baby Aurora. The puppeteer was on stage, dressed completely in black, manipulating the puppet baby with long sticks in the manner of Asian puppetry. This is nothing new—it’s straight out of Disney’s The Lion King musical, which started a craze for this theatrical device in western musical theater. But the sight gags performed by the puppeteer were a welcome relief to the dance sequences, which seemed derivative, repetitive, and sometimes boring.
As with much entertainment directed at young people these days, the parents here have disappeared by the second half of the show. It begins with 20-something tourists snapping selfies in front of the gates of the overgrown forest that imprisons Aurora. The gardener-turned-winged-vampire boyfriend camps out in a tent, waiting for some sign of his beloved. This leads to the production’s most inventive bit: the sequence in which the villain, unable to awaken Aurora with his own kisses, tricks the hero into doing it for him. It is an inspired bit of comedy and the only thing in the second half of the show that made me sit up and take notice. The rest of the action—which consists mainly of Aurora and other dancers wandering around the forest and the hero confronting the villain’s gang in a disco—was drawn out and confusing. How does it all end? The director tacks a cutesy ending onto an otherwise fairly grim tale. After Caradoc is slain, Aurora becomes a winged “good” vampire, so she and the hero can consummate their love (on stage, though under a coverlet) and produce another adorable stick puppet baby, getting a big laugh from the audience.
Beginning with the first intermission, and particularly after the finale, I found myself seized by an emotion usually not associated with dance performances. This production—with its dark colors, garish costumes, weeping statuary, and vampire conceit—gave me the creeps. The show is billed as a gothic romance, but it’s more Goth than gothic. Instead of a wow factor, it has a certain “ew“ factor. It’s like watching Nosferatu, albeit with a happy ending.
This brings me to my final observation about Bourne’s work, which is part of a growing trend in stage, film, and opera to update venerable classics for modern audiences. If the essence of a thing is altered in the process of updating it, it is no longer the same thing. Its DNA has been changed, so it should be called something else. Whatever Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty is, it is not a ballet, much less a fairy tale for children. Gone are the innocence and beauty of the original: Bourne has replaced them with an edgy, dark conceit that—among other things—is totally at odds with Tchaikovsky’s luminous ballet score. Bourne may have dedicated this production to the composer. But if Tchaikovsky were alive today and saw it, he’d drink the contaminated water all over again.