Over the years, I have been alternately frustrated and impressed with Matthew Bourne's work. I love it when he cleverly combines dance and narrative as he does in his SWAN LAKE and PLAY WITHOUT WORDS (based loosely on the Pinter/Losey film, THE SERVANT). I am frustrated when it is basically a play without words -- pantomime with minimal dance -- as it is in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS. His NUTCRACKER is not an improvement upon the original, nor is it as clever or well choreographed as Mark Morris's THE HARD NUT. I did like much of his DORIAN GRAY. Bourne is very good at finding a contemporary twist on a nineteenth century work, as he did with SWAN LAKE and he does with much of SLEEPING BEAUTY. He is also good at bring out the eroticism in the stories he chooses to tell and adding a good bit of homoeroticism.
I love a lot of the Petipa/Tchaikovsky ballet, SLEEPING BEAUTY but, like all of the great Russian story ballets, it actually doesn't tell its story very well. The original SLEEPING BEAUTY is filled with dances that have nothing to do with the narrative, which is basically told in pantomime in the last few minutes of the key scenes. What Bourne has been able to do, as he has with SWAN LAKE, is find a way to use Tchaikovsky's music to tell a coherent, interesting story. He also does some of his usual gender switches. Even the Lilac Fairy becomes male (and a vampire to boot!). All Bourne's changes to the narrative make THE SLEEPING BEAUTY into an absorbing, sexy two hour dance drama. And it really dances. Bourne's choreography isn't endlessly inventive. The same steps and turns are repeated and he seems to dislike leaps, thus robbing dance of some of its excitement. Except for some of the dances in the first scene, all the dance is there to propel the narrative. As usual, the action gets updates so that the final scenes are contemporary. Bourne cuts and pastes Tchaikovsky's numbers to tell his story. I am happy to lose all those unnecessary (to the narrative) specialty dances that comprise at least half of the Petipa ballet. What Bourne does with some of the music, such as the music for the "Puss and Boots" duet (which I always hated) is very clever.
Bourne's Aurora (the sleeping beauty) is a feisty creature. She begins as a very energetic baby (a delightful puppet) and grows into a hyperactive, rebellious princess in love with the gardener and pursued by the villain Caradoc, the son of the evil fairy Carabosse. Count Lilac, King of the Fairies, keeps Leo alive (sort of) so he can be reunited with his sweetheart one-hundred years later. The narrative is surprising in places and absorbing giving us both good storytelling and good dance.
As usual with Bourne's work, there are lots of semi-clad male dancers to please the women and gay men in the audience.
Bourne's virtuosic, hard-working company of twenty-four dancers are splendid. I'm not sure who I saw last night. I did notice that Liam Mower, who was the first Billy Elliott in the London production of the Elton John-Lee Hall musical was Count Lilac. I'm not surprised that he has grown into such a good dancer. The Aurora (Ashley Shaw or Hannah Vassalo) was a convincing teenager discovering her sexuality, a charming stage presence and an excellent dancer). Instead of a live orchestra, we got a recording of the score played at a very loud volume.
This is a delightful work, one of Bourne's best.
Matthew Bourne's SLEEPING BEAUTY: A GOTHIC ROMANCE. New York City Center. November 2, 2013.