All the staples are here: Tchaikovsky, the new-born princess, the revenge of the uninvited guest, the 100-year sleep, the vampires … What? Matthew Bourne, who won Tonys for putting viciousness and sexual threat into (male) swans in “Swan Lake,” has reinvented “Sleeping Beauty.” Initially, Lez Brotherston’s grand, gothic design outdoes the drama but Bourne’s more dynamic and dangerous second half creates dance for the “Twilight” generation.
Evidence of Bourne’s trademark theatricality is immediately apparent in the opening section. In his new scenario, baby princess Aurora is now a late-Victorian doll puppet manipulated by unseen dancers to nicely comic effect. She’s visited by unusually vigorous fairies who endow her not with traditional sweetness and light but with temper and rebelliousness. And with thunderclaps heralding the machinations of wicked Carabosse (Ben Bunce) added to the taped and smartly trimmed symphonic score, there’s increased tension.
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Thus by the time she’s 16, Aurora (Ashley Shaw) is less of a standard-issue princess and more a skittish young rebel chafing at the constraints put upon her by repressive parents in a gilded Edwardian palace. Her yearning for a barefoot, carefree life is further underlined by her interest in handsome young gamekeeper Leo (Chris Trenfield) with whom she dances a key, extended duet sequence.
Bourne has always been at his best dramatizing vivid ideas through dance, and the weakness of that duet stems from the fact that it plays out too predictably. Indeed, there’s a short-windedness to the choreography throughout much of the first half, which at times feels like prolonged set-up. But Bourne lets rip in his handling of Caradoc (tall and swooping Tom Jackson Greaves), Carbosse’s dangeously sexy son who captures Aurora’s eye and the production’s focus as he carries out the legendary revenge.
The surprises and excitement level rise considerably in the second act, with lovestruck Leo also surviving Aurora’s 100-year sleep courtesy of Count Lilac (Christopher Marney), who has sunk his teeth into Leo’s neck.
Whether gilded palace, eerie woodland equipped with moving walkway or crimson-lit, neon-infested nightclub, much of the evening’s increasingly torrid tone is controlled by Brotherston’s vivid sets (and 160 costumes). Resplendent beneath the intense glow of Paule Constable’s lighting, the evening builds to a passionate denouement mixing sex, dread and the undead. With so many emotional threads at his command, everything literally leaps into focus as Bourne sweeps his audience up in a seamless fusion of dance and drama.
If its pulse-quickening thrills take time to coalesce, the same is true of the original ballet, which is more revered for its score than the drive of its narrative. Purists can seek more reverent versions but Bourne has always achieved bonanza box-office by appealing far more widely, particularly to non-dance audiences.
The appetite for his rebooted classics shows no signs of diminishing. This doesn’t match the sustained eroticism of his “Swan Lake” nor the iridescent glories of his orphanage-set “Nutcracker!” but tickets for the two-month London run and six-month U.K. tour are vanishing. The tone of Bourne’s “Sleeping Beauty” may finally be compellingly dark, but its future looks extremely bright.