Matthew Bourne’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ at The Kennedy Center by Carolyn Kelemen

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Bourne takes a big bite out of ballet tradition in his Gothic Fairy Tale ‘Sleeping Beauty.’

There are many descriptive words to describe Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty at The Kennedy Center through the weekend – mysterious, ominous, quirky, wicked, fast-paced, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and definitely not-your-grandmother’s version! Think of Bourne as the ‘Tim Burton of dance,’ and If a movie were to be made of this latest incarnation of Sleeping Beauty, one could envision Helena Bonham Carter as the dark fairy and Johnny Depp as her vampire son who causes havoc in the kingdom.

Christopher Marney as Count Lilac, Photo by Simon Annand.
Christopher Marney as Count Lilac, Photo by Simon Annand.

With all the pre-buzz and anticipation of Bourne’s third reworking of these Tchaikovsky treasures (first Nutcracker, then the all-male Swan Lake), the British-born director didn’t stray too far from the original fairy tale about a princess who sleeps under a spell for 100 years. It’s that damn spell that fascinates and keeps us on the edge of our seats until the last bite.

Is this version modern ballet (or should we call it balletic modern dance since our heroine is barefoot)? Doesn’t matter. Bourne calls it “a dance production,” and takes credit for “direction, choreography and new scenario,” as listed in the Playbill. Lez Brotherson deserves much of this accolades for his sets and costume designs – blood red curtains, scrims that scroll with messages to keep us posted on the plot, and that haunting full moon that hovers throughout the four briskly-paced acts. It’s a challenge to span 12 decades and stay faithful to the period, from the Edwardian garden party to the vampire club scene, the moon casting its spell. Paule Constable’s lighting adds to the intrigue, the tale of a childless couple discover a baby left in a cloud of smoke at the castle gate, a gift from Carabosse. The royals neglect to show gratitude to the dark fair – a mistake, indeed – and the plot thickens.

Bourne’s ballet begins with the birth of Aurora in 1890, the same year the original premiered in St. Petersburg. In Act One, the princess is a strange puppet, skillfully handled by members of his New Adventures Production Company. By 1911 at Aurora’s coming-of-age party with male and female fairies bestowing gifts on the princess, she finds herself falling in love with Leo, the Royal Gamekeeper, the first of many twists in the story. In previous ballet productions, the princess never meets her prince charming until the awakening kiss. Here she is sexually awakened by her suitor as Hannah Vassallo (Aurora) and Chris Trenfield (Leo) perform a sensuous pas de deux, all swirls, lifts and daring leaps to Tchaikovsky’s familiar waltz. You leave for intermission humming the melody and fantasizing.

As for the plot, Caradoc (the evil son who carries on his dead mother’s revenge) poisons the princess with a black rose – no spinning wheel in this ballet for her to prick her finger – as the vampires take care of any bleeding! Meanwhile, Count Lilac, King of the Fairies saves her from dying with his magical powers, but alas sinks his fangs into Leo who joins his bride-to-be in sleep for 100 years. Yep, the good fairy is one of the undead, another irreverent twist in the fairytale.

Bourne gives Christopher Marney solos galore, especially during the fairies gathering at the palace where he soars in the most unusual Rose Adagio variation. No four suitors here – only a villain and his captives. At the opening performance (the 217th according to the program), the bare-chested, punk-attired Tom Jackson Greaves (Caradoc) captured our attention with his bravura dancing and his blazing eyes focused on Aurora. He reminded this writer of Luis Torres in the Washington Ballet’s production of Dracula, pulling off barrel turns and striking poses and gestures, much like the Russians (who invented the steps).

There won’t be any spoiler alerts on how Leo and Aurora awake, but they do so in grand style to Tchaikovsky’s wedding mazurka, one of those memorable aforementioned tunes. I never thought I would be writing positive comments on canned music, but a live orchestra might not have the same impact or momentum needed for the past-paced dancing, especially the frenzy of vampires gathered at a disco. Or was it a brothel?

Hannah Vassallo (Aurora). Photo by Photo by Mikah Smillie.
Hannah Vassallo (Aurora). Photo by Photo by Mikah Smillie.

More like a book musical that just happens to be danced, last night’s performance of Sleeping Beauty was embraced not only by dance aficionados but by those who wouldn’t normally be caught dead (or awake) at the ballet.

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission.

Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, A Gothic Fairy Tale plays through Sunday, November 17, 2013 at The Kennedy Center’s Opera House  – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. Tickets range from $30 – $120; save 15% on Orchestra seats for select performance when you purchase full-price tickets to The Joffrey Ballet’s The Nutcracker. Call the box office (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.