Matthew Bourne is hailed as a celebrated choreographer and director. But Bourne considers himself a storyteller. And in his latest venture in narration for the stage, the Tony Award-winner has refashioned Tchaikovsky’s iconic ballet “The Sleeping Beauty.”
The result is like so many past Bourne creations — a fanciful reimagining of a classic that satisfies purists and delights ballet’s uninitiated. He already did it with Tchiakovsky’s other ballets, “The Nutcracker” and with resounding international and Broadway success, “Swan Lake.” And this reshaping, which can be seen with the original London cast from Tuesday to Sunday at Proctors, is again expected to surprise and charm viewers.
“The music was written to tell a story,” Bourne said from Des Moines, Iowa, where “Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance” opened its limited U.S. tour. “When listening to the music, I tried to wipe away all the images I had of the ballet and think about how to tell the story. The music is so wonderful, but I wanted to find something of my own.”
Harder to approach
Certainly, the ballet represents a pivotal period in British ballet history, signaling the Royal Ballet’s maturity into world-class company. Because of the ballet’s status (Tchiakovsky considered it his best ballet) and Bourne’s past successes, there were high expectations for his “Sleeping Beauty.” But Bourne said it wasn’t easy.
Matthew Bourne’s ‘Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance’
WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: Tuesday to Sunday
HOW MUCH: $75-$20
MORE INFO: 346-6204, www.proctors.org
“The ballet and music are so loved that I think it was harder to approach than some of the works that I have done,” said Bourne who also works extensively in musical theater. “I do it because I love these pieces; and I want to please the people who know and love them too.”
Bourne said ballet aficionados will likely suspend those familiar visions of the rose adagio, Puss ’n’ Boots sparring with the White Cat or the Bluebird pas de deux. He expects they will lose themselves in the look of this unusual production that veers far from tradition.
They did in London where it premiered earlier this year. The London Observer noted that “Like all his [Bourne’s] productions, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is an eye-popping achievement, and its best moments are unforgettable.”
The New York Times critic wrote that Bourne “is a masterly storyteller.
He is brilliant at finding a kernel of emotional truth in, and a fresh approach to, familiar dance narratives that make them resonate in new ways.”
Performed by the dancers and actors of his own ensemble, the 25-year-old New Adventures, the production breaks from the classic by including vampires and a new flock of fairies, some men, some women. The fairies have been renamed from Beauty, Wit, Purity, Generosity and Joy to Ardor, Hibernia, Autumnus, Feral and Tantrum. The evil Carabosse, who curses the princess with her spell, is cast as a man. This grim fairy, who is a childless hag in the original, is now a father to an equally sinister son, Caradoc, who tries to win Princess Aurora’s affections.
Bourne also strengthened the love story, which is weak in the Marius Petipa ballet. In Petipa’s version, Aurora endures perfunctory wooing from globe-trotting suitors. In Bourne’s, the teen indulges in a secret love affair with the palace groundskeeper.
The setting also has changed. Baroque Europe is replaced by Victorian and Edwardian England. Bourne matched it to the time period in which “The Sleeping Beauty” premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia. The sleeping princess then awakens in the present day. The program notes that the last act wedding happened “Last Night.”
“It gave me a chance to work in different dance styles of the time periods,” said Bourne. “That was the exciting thing, exploring a broad style of dance, but there are not pointe shoes. The designs [by Lez Brotherston] reflect the time periods too. It’s an incredible mixture of story and design.”
The narrative and the designs, said Bourne, were intended to heighten the dramatic tension, rooted in the battle of good versus evil, which included the power of true love. Aurora’s uncertain choice of a husband sustains suspense to the end.
“I have found that there are few who are really bothered by the changes in the story,” he said. “It is still a fairy tale and a story of how good triumphs over evil and love can survive the ages.”
‘Rock star’ in London
Bourne admits that for small-city presenters, like Proctors, booking six days of “Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance” is risky. Philip Morris, chief executive officer at Proctors, agrees that some in the Capital Region will be tempted to stay away, as it is ballet. But it will be their loss.
“No one is going to walk out unhappy, I guarantee it,” said Morris. “I’ve seen the video. I’m a music guy and I don’t generally like two-dimensional. But even on the screen it was remarkable.”
The CEO is so confident in Bourne’s capability that he and his independent presenters network has financially backed other Bourne shows like “Mary Poppins,” which was presented last season at Proctors. Morris said “Mary Poppins” was a success and Proctors will receive 10 times its investment back in profit. Morris feels that the gamble is the American audience. Bourne is not a household name here as he is on London’s theater circuit.
“Matthew Bourne is a rock star on London’s West End,” said Morris. “His shows always sell-out. The reviews of his stuff are phenomenal. People love him because he’s creative as hell.”
Bourne is honored that the tour, which is exclusive to only seven cities (Schenectady being the smallest), is so enthusiastically embraced by producers. That, in turn, can generate audience support.
“I know audiences will enjoy it if they come,” said Bourne. “There are a lot of surprises.”