Bourne’s Beauty Goes Global

Matthew Bourne is celebrating the 25th anniversary of his company, New Adventures, with a Sleeping Beauty-fest.

After its premiere season at Sadlers Wells in London last Christmas, his Beauty is going global.

Last May, the stage production with the original cast was in filmed in the UK.

This film, directed by Ross MacGibbon, is being screened in cinemas throughout Australia, will be screened in the UK on BBC2 on Christmas Day this year, will go on the cinema circuit throughout the UK next year, and will finally be released as a DVD.

(MacGibbon, who directed the recent Mariinsky Ballet Swan Lake in 3D, seems to have cornered the market in dance films).

I went to a Sunday screening of Bourne’s Beauty at the Chauvel cinema in Paddington, Sydney and, despite the publicity generated by the Australian distributor, Sharmill Films, (an interview with The Age’s writer, Philippa Hawker, was published in The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, Brisbane Times and WA Today), there was a disappointingly small audience.

But the reach of the production has only just begun. At the end of this month, the stage production will begin a tour of the United States visiting seven cities including New York, Washington DC and Los Angeles.

That kind of audience reach is something that most choreographers could never imagine let alone achieve.

But that’s Bourne for you. He’s the man whose dance theatre creations appeal to the widest possible audience, from his Cinderella set in the Blitz, to his choreography for Mary Poppins, the Musical, and his smash hit, Swan Lake, with its male corps de ballet dressed in feathered skirts. Those swans, with fierce black streaks on their foreheads were on the warpath, as likely to break your arm with a swipe of their wing rather than wrap you in a warm embrace.

The beauty of Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty rests in his ability to tell, and ‘sell’, a good story, in this case, the concept of the princess Aurora’s life in three eras, the late 19th century, the early 20th century and the present day.

This synopsis is the basis for three different styles of dancing, as well as the variations in the décor and costumes, created by Bourne’s long time collaborator, Lez Brotherston.

There’s an added bonus for ballet aficionados who will recognise the many classical ballet references not only to Marius Petipa’s Sleeping Beauty but also to moments in Giselle, Manon and Anastasia.

Bourne begins his story with the birth of Aurora in 1890, the year of the Petipa premiere, but this princess is not the real offspring of a king and queen, but one conjured up by the wicked fairy, Carabosse, as a present to the childless couple.

Left at the door of their palatial home, the little Aurora is a mischievous and uncontrollable crybaby who torments the servants and nanny employed by the royal couple.

The twist here is that Aurora is depicted as a puppet, but a believable one with a sweet and expressive presence. Cleverly manipulated by unseen hands, she moves with alacrity across the stage and climbs up the luxurious drapes of her bedroom.

One moonlit night, as the baby is settled in her bed, six fairies, three male, three female, creep into her room to bless her with various gifts signifying characteristics and strengths, in the same way as Petipa’s fairies offered their gifts in short solos in the Prologue to his Beauty.

But Bourne’s fairies are far more red blooded and gutsy than Petipa’s dainty ballet girls. No sweet arm movements, bourees and elegant hands for them.

They prance, roll on the floor, attack, grin, walk heel-first, toe-last, collapse like rag dolls and pirouette as they work their magic on the puppet Aurora.

The Lilac Fairy is a man – Count Lilac, (Christopher Marney) – whose costume is lavishly embellished and his coat hemmed with a deep flounce of purple and blue feathers.

Exit the fairies, enter Carabosse, furious that her gift of Aurora to the barren couple has not been properly acknowledged.

Carabosse (Adam Maskell), cross-dressed in an elaborate, Victorian scarlet gown arrives with his vicious assistants dressed in black-feathered skirts and not much else.

The mimed tale of the future fate of Aurora (her 100-year sleep and her awakening by a lover’s kiss) is told in a sinister rendition by two young dancers representing Aurora and her rescuer. Their faces are hidden by creepy, flesh-coloured masks with no defined facial features.

The 1890 setting is dominated by gold columns, lush curtains and a giant window through which we see the large circle of the moon and the Victorian-influenced colours of deep red and deep blue.

In 1911, when Aurora is celebrating her 21st birthday, we’re in the latter years of the belle époque, the time when the Romanovs were yet to be slaughtered, the Great War was hardly on the horizon, where the pretty girls and handsome boys of privileged families played tennis while their parents looked on with pride.

This calm-before-the-storm setting complete with little white parasols, is familiar from such ballet scenes as Kenneth MacMillan’s picnic on a yacht in Anastasia and Graeme Murphy’s wedding act in his Swan Lake.

Brotherston’s 1911 setting is masterful, with its blue-pink sky, the dominating statue of an angel and a stately home perched high behind the outdoor action.

Tchaikovsky’s Act One flower waltz is transformed into a social waltz for the couples and the king wears a white jacket decorated with medals, in the manner of King George V or Czar Nicholas II.

Aurora is now a young woman who rebels against Edwardian conventions, even turning up her nose at the idea of wearing feminine boots. The scene begins with her struggling to put on her boots and flinging her legs wide, revealing her pretty underwear in a very unladylike manner.

From here on, Aurora (Hannah Vassallo) dances bare foot and how her feet manage to stay unharmed for the length of an entire performance is a miracle as she is hardly off stage until the curtain falls.

The son of Carabosse, Carodoc, (also Adam Maskell), appears as a Dracula figure – a seductive, unexpected guest – carrying a black rose (shades of the black-leathered guest in the ball scene of Bourne’s Swan Lake) and we know that the rose is the weapon of destruction which will send Aurora into her sleep.

But not before a comic tango-like waltz (danced to Aurora’s Act 1 variation) and a Rose Adagio for Aurora and her suitor, Leo, the gardener at the estate (Dominic North) in which the couple tumble over and around a garden bench, roll on the floor and into one another’s arms.

The scene ends with Bourne’s nod to the vampire craze.

Count Lilac comes to the rescue to guide a comatose Aurora behind the castle gates into her deep sleep headquarters. He keeps Leo alive in limbo land by biting his neck, ensuring that as one of the undead he will be able to save Aurora after the century passes.

How, then does Bourne tackle the present day? Not so clearly as in 1890 and 1911 because he now veers between acknowledging everyday life in the 21st century complete with iPhones and hoodies and creating a fantasy life of what’s been going on in the slumber zone behind the gates where Aurora keeps company with a cloud of ghosts or sleepwalkers, men and women similarly dressed to her, in white underwear.

The link between each world is the journey of Leo after he wakes from his sleep. Emerging from a mini tent outside the gates, the hero now wears tiny wings on his back. He embarks on his search for Aurora not in a boat steered by the Lilac Fairy but by foot, as he runs solemnly and resolutely across the stage to the music of Tchaikovsky’s Panorama.

In a elaborate reworking of the standard Petipa ballet (based on Charles Perrault’s tale), the final scenes include Caradoc attempting to wake Aurora in a duet with unpleasant necrophilia undertones, a longish zombie dance, a scene in a nightclub where the guests in red and black resemble a living chess board of lascivious knights and queens ready to be entertained by the killing of Aurora by Caradoc.

Aurora, the sacrificial victim in a white dress, is saved by Leo in disguise. In their duet, Aurora’s weakness and desperation is reminiscent of the last moments of Manon.

Following the victorious final duet of Aurora and Leo the apotheosis is danced to the march, Vive Henri IV as it is in Petipa’s ballet.

I’ve written more than enough already so I won’t disclose the surprise ending.

For me, the only distraction within the two-hour film was the laughter and applause from an unseen audience, a touch evidently added to make the cinema audience feel they are in the theatre.

In contrast, when National Theatre productions are filmed, we see the audience and get a glimpse of the theatre’s exterior so there’s much more of a sense of being present.

The film will continue to be screened over the next few days in three cities:


Cinema Nova on 10,11 September


Dendy Opera Quays, 12 September
Cremorne Orpheum, 14, 15,16 September


Dendy Canberra, 12 September