Matthew Bourne’s “Sleeping Beauty”

November 8, 2013

Never underestimate the usefulness of a vampiric fairy. Such a supernatural creature—or, to be more accurate, the idea of one — played a critical role in the birth of “Matthew Bourne’s ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ ” the dance production (subtitled “A Gothic Romance”) running in the Kennedy Center Opera House, Nov. 12-17.

By adding a vampire or two to his version of the well-known snoozing-princess yarn, Bourne, the hugely successful British choreographer/director, managed to fashion a narrative that was suspenseful and character-rich enough to meet his idiosyncratic standards. And that bit of dramaturgical tinkering allowed him to complete — after nearly two decades — a trilogy of Tchaikovsky story ballets.

“It was something that was hanging over me, in some ways,” Bourne admitted, speaking by phone from New York where “Sleeping Beauty,” a production of his company New Adventures, landed in late October.

An visionary iconoclast who has been able to give dance — including dance to classical music — remarkable popular appeal, Bourne created “Edward Scissorhands,” seen at the Kennedy Center in 2007. But he is still best known for his 1995 remake of “Swan Lake” showcasing a corps of brawny and slightly ominous male swans. That international sensation followed his earlier reinvention of another Tchaikovsky ballet: Bourne’s 1992 “Nutcracker!” featured a loopily grim Dickensian orphanage and characters like dancing Licorice Allsorts.

Tchaikovsky composed the music for three enduring story ballets, of course, so the question hanging over the dance world since the late 1990s has been: When would Bourne tackle “Sleeping Beauty,” and what irreverent twists would he weave into the traditional story, which tells of an evil fairy’s curse and a princess who slumbers for years until woken by a prince?

While fans waited, Bourne wasn’t idle, whipping up works including 2000’s “The Car Man” (loosely based on Bizet’s “Carmen” and labeled a “dance/thriller”) and 2002’s swinging-’60s “Play Without Words,” first produced by London’s National Theatre.

As for “Sleeping Beauty,” Bourne says for a long while he was “put off” by the tale. Charles Perrault’s late 17th-century version of the story was the basis for the original 1890 ballet, choreographed by Marius Petipa to Tchaikovsky’s music. But Bourne found that narrative unsatisfying.

“I said to myself, ‘Well, it doesn’t have a great love story: The prince comes on very late in the ballet and just wakes her up, and then they get married. That’s more or less it,’ ” he says. “Not a great story.”

The character of Princess Aurora too, can seem frustratingly passive from a modern perspective: Falling instantly in love with the stranger who has kissed you, after you’ve been meekly dozing for decades, hardly testifies to a developed personality, for instance. Bourne yearned for Aurora’s character “to be a little more complex.”

He also felt that, in the traditional ballet rendering, “the good-vs.-evil story peters out a little bit”: The evil fairy, Carabosse, makes her big entrances early on in the ballet, while the final wedding scene, crammed by Petipa with divertissements for storybook characters, lacks dramatic conflict.

“As a storyteller,” Bourne says, “I want the story to carry on through to the end of the piece. I’m not just going to stop to do fairy tale dances.”

In this frame of mind, a couple of years ago, he travelled to Moscow with his “Cinderella” (set during the London Blitz) and visited Tchaikovsky’s house. The experience “was a trigger,” he says. That day, he resolved to choreograph “Sleeping Beauty” for the 25th anniversary New Adventures would celebrate in 2012. (The anniversary harkened back to the founding of Bourne’s previous company, Adventures in Motion Pictures, in 1987.)

To overcome his qualms about the story, he made himself analyze which plot strands irked him. And he researched interpretations of the fairy tale — for example, reading psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim’s seminal book “The Uses of Enchantment,” as well as “About the Sleeping Beauty,” a lesser-known text by “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers.

Gradually, Bourne began to discern mythic and psychological depths in the story that intrigued him. The protectiveness of “Sleeping Beauty’s” king and queen seemed to speak to the ambivalence many parents feel as they watch their kids age out of childhood. The triggering of Carabosse’s curse, when Aurora pricks her finger, symbolizes the advent of sexual maturity.

And he became increasingly fascinated by the concept of Aurora’s long sleep — a narrative conceit that, to a choreographer, presented tantalizing possibilities for devising dances in the styles of different eras. The slumber also seemed an opportunity to create a great, odds-defying romance.

“A love story across time — that was very interesting,” Bourne says. “How does love survive across a century?”

Anyone who has watched the Southern-vampires soap opera “True Blood,” as Bourne has in the past (“I’ve gone off it a bit; it’s gotten out of hand,” he says), knows one answer to that question. Taking a hint from that HBO series, Bourne invented a breed of vampiric fairies (“I’m not sure I completely made that up,” he says cautiously) whose supernatural longevity would allow for an enchanted-sleep-spanning love affair.

Bourne also invented a sinister supernatural character named Caradoc, son to Carabosse (and played by the same dancer), who threatens and courts Aurora, even while she’s getting her spell-induced Z’s. Caradoc is a “dark force” that “keeps us going right through to the end” of the story, Bourne says.

With his plot figured out, Bourne was able to turn his attention to the choreography. “It’s got more dancing than other shows I’ve done,” he says, acknowledging that critics have sometimes found his productions richer in theater than in virtuosic movement.

The dancing in this “Sleeping Beauty” takes inspiration from real-world time periods: The scene of Aurora’s christening, set in 1890, nods to a balletic vocabulary; Aurora’s 21st-birthday party, set in 1911, alludes to Edwardian-era dance crazes like the maxixe and the Castle Walk. A scene set in an eerie land of sleepwalkers extrapolates on the free-spirited physicality that Bourne has built in to Aurora’s temperament and movement — physicality that he based on the style of modern-dance pioneer Isadora Duncan. The ballet’s fourth section is set in modern times — Aurora has catnapped right through to the smartphone era — and appropriately evokes today.

Dancer Hannah Vassallo, who plays Aurora in “Sleeping Beauty,” says the sleepwalking sequence is her favorite part of the production, because of the “lyrical and contemporary” movement and because dancing while pretending to be zonked is a challenge. She also appreciates how this production has deepened Aurora’s character, compared to other takes on the story. “We really invest in the relationship between her and the people around her,” Vassallo says.

Bourne’s determination to bolster characterization led him to include puppetry in “Sleeping Beauty”: Rather than use a doll or faceless bundle to represent baby Aurora, as a traditional ballet production might, this production features a puppet.

“It was very important to us that [baby Aurora] have a vital personality,” Bourne says, noting that the puppet “acts like a real baby: she falls, she cries at things.” The result is that audience feel they know Aurora from the story’s start. (Puppeteer Sarah Wright devised the puppetry. The production’s creative team also includes Bourne’s frequent collaborator Lez Brotherston, who designed the set and the over 250 costumes.)

Such attention to detail has paid off: Bourne calls “Sleeping Beauty” “our most successful show ever.” Since the 2012 premiere, more than 275,000 people have seen the show in the United Kingdom, and thousands more in Italy and Russia. He also says the production has been attracting “that teenage audience, which is quite difficult to bring into the theater.”

Part of that enthusiasm, one guesses, is due to the zeitgeist-friendly vampire subplot. “Sleeping Beauty” harmonizes with a culture still in love with the gothic, the storybook-derived, and the fanged. (“True Blood;” the movie “Snow White and the Huntsman,” reportedly slated for a sequel; and NBC’s recently launched TV series “Dracula” are just a few examples.)

“I never wanted it to be known as the vampire ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ because it’s such a smallish part of it,” Bourne says. While he’s thrilled that the production has “captured the imagination of the younger generation,” he doesn’t want “to feel like I’d gotten on a sort of vampire bandwagon.”

But which direction is that bandwagon running? Long before Bella Swan met Edward Cullen and bookstores devoted sections to “Paranormal Romance,” ballet was trafficking in mortal-otherworldly love affairs. “True Blood” and “Twilight” were latecomers to a legacy stretching back through “La Sylphide” and “Giselle.” With “Sleeping Beauty,” Bourne and New Adventures have arguably just returned human-supernatural passion to that dance tradition.

Wren is a freelance writer.

Matthew Bourne’sSleeping Beauty

Nov. 12-17 in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Visit www.kennedy-center.org or call (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.

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