The key words in the title “Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty” must be the first two.
Tchaikovsky’s sumptuous music remains reasonably intact (about two-thirds, anyway). The outlines of Charles Perrault’s fairy tale can be seen throughout this revision, though the story now reaches from the Edwardian era to the present.
But the British director-choreographer has re-imagined this tale top to bottom, from a curtain-climbing infant Aurora (a puppet who does a double-take at the winged fairies at her christening) to the next-to-last scene, where characters vogue to a mazurka in a disco that could be at the mouth of Hell.
Purists will quarrel. People who think the world is big enough for Marius Petipa, Tchaikovsky’s choreographer of choice, and a 21st-century guy with a yen for Gothic romance will queue up.
You get bits of Petipa, in any case. Bourne has joined classical tradition with the free-flowing modern expression of Isadora Duncan – like Duncan, his Aurora (Ashley Shaw) often dances barefoot, hair down, in flowing clothes – and adds moves you might see on Broadway or in a club. His world, and this show, encompass any possibility that can be danced.
The new plot diverges from tradition at once: Irascible fairy Carabosse (imperious Tom Jackson Greaves on opening night) gives a baby to a royal couple who cannot conceive in the 1890s. When she’s not invited to the christening, Carabosse dooms the baby: She’ll grow into a young woman who dies when pricked by a black rose at 21.
Count Lilac (vivid Christopher Marney) mitigates this curse: Now Aurora (Ashley Shaw) will simply sleep for 100 years. That’s no help to Leo (Dominic North), the royal gardener and her suitor when she grows up. But Lilac has an answer for his despair, and it involves an eternity-giving bite to Leo’s neck.
Three qualities make the show uniquely entertaining. The first is design. Paule Constable’s lighting adds at every moment to mirth or melancholy. Paul Groothuis’ soundscape brings the roar of a thunderclap and the soft whoosh of rain. (A warning: The recorded music comes at you loudly.) Lez Brotherston’s inventive costumes have clever touches: A disguised fairy wears a red jacket with painted wings. Brotherston’s sets crown the show: Note the sunny terrace where Aurora has her 21st birthday, with a foreboding statue of a weeping angel at the back.
The second strength is humor. The famous Rose Adagio turns into a playful, swoony duet for Aurora and Leo; he gives her roses, but she tosses them away. (They’re a well-matched couple, though you may see different dancers: The show is double-cast.) At the start of Act 2, set in our time, hikers pose in front of the vine-covered gates of Aurora’s enchanted castle, taking pictures of themselves in clownish poses.
The third element is mystery. A now-immortal Leo chases his vision of Aurora through a forest full of people dressed in white, some with blindfolds. Are they ghosts of dead lovers? Lonely people on their own quests for connection? Either way, they mesmerize.
Bourne sat in the audience Tuesday night, next to Blumenthal Performing Arts president Tom Gabbard, who booked a Charlotte run on “Beauty’s” short U.S. tour. The choreographer will do a series of programs for students and young dancers around the county this week. With luck, he felt enough love at the Belk to send us his Tony-winning “Swan Lake” the next time it tours – or anything else he cares to share.
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