The story is one of the best-known fairy tales, and it unfolds along the lines of one of the world’s most famous ballets. But things don’t happen as one might expect in Matthew Bourne’s spectacular and ultimately moving dance theater production of “Sleeping Beauty.”
The infant princess, usually a mere suggestion in a blanket, has one of the strongest — and most physical — presences of anyone in the cast. This is the work of magnificent puppetry, enabling the wee heiress-apparent to scale the nursery drapes like a manic cat.
Among the fairies who visit the little blister and endow her with virtues are two beefy men who tear around the bassinet as if they’ve just come off the rugby pitch. One is named Tantrum, and judging by his arms-crossed harumphing, his baby gift seems to be a diva dose of attitude.
Events proceed quickly in Bourne’s production, which opened Tuesday at the Kennedy Center Opera House and continues through Sunday. We start in 1890 — which happens to be the year that Tchaikovsky and Marius Petipa, the famed choreographer, unveiled their ballet in Russia. As Bourne’s creation is an homage to them, as well as to other well-known ballets, it’s a sweet touch to anchor his “Beauty” in ballet history.
But here’s another departure: The next time we see Princess Aurora, she’s 21 and peeling off her stockings for a tryst with the royal gamekeeper, Leo.
Crucially, this production, which is more high-drama musical theater than ballet, features no Prince Charming. But Leo will do. As danced by Chris Trenfield, he’s quite charming, indeed, ardent and vividly emotional. In fact, the women are more inclined to keep their cool here, while the key male characters rage and sulk.
Well, we can forgive them that — after all, they are so hot, er, so heartfelt. There is nothing quiet and orderly about this “Sleeping Beauty,” although restoration of order is a common theme in the traditional ballet. Bourne’s works throw tradition to the winds: His “Nutcracker” takes place in a wretched orphanage; his “Swan Lake,” which made him famous by playing on Broadway and touring the world, featured a corps of mud-splotched male swans.
In “Sleeping Beauty,” too, that big, earthy male energy, which sends the male dancers vaulting across the stage, their breeches and boots cutting a searing line, is a boon. It helps the drama feel more immediate.
Bourne’s choreographic skills are uneven, although he comes into his strength in the second act, with a diabolical nightclub scene that hums along precisely on that fear/pleasure boundary. His major achievement is a moving duet of discovery and rapture between Leo and Aurora, by way of Kenneth MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Aurora was danced on opening night by Hannah Vassallo, a bright, spirited dancer with arresting eyes and wells of mischief.
The design elements are first-rate. Paule Constable’s lighting creates magic, especially in Act Two’s sunlit garden party, which resembles a Seurat painting. Lez Brotherston’s pastoral set and white-linen costumes are especially transporting here.
Granted, there is some overblowing. Start with the music, which is recorded, sadly. Tchaikovsky is hammered with woofers in Act One, which makes for a more menacing atmosphere but also an aurally painful one. (The sound quality improves in the second half.)
The production is subtitled “A Gothic Romance,” which can mean only one thing nowadays — vampires. Oh, yes. They’re not only fanged but winged. In a plot twist, Carabosse, the evil fairy whose curse leads to Aurora’s century of sleep (surely I can skip the details, right?), dies before Act Two. Her equally evil son, Caradoc, carries on her grudge. He’s a vampire. Now, wouldn’t that mean Mama Carabosse was also one of the undead? So what’s she doing being dead?
Fortunately, my tween companion set me straight about eternal life. Carabosse needn’t have been a vampire for her son to be one. It’s all about bites, not bloodlines.
That’s a philosophical point here, too. Bourne was inspired to create this “Sleeping Beauty” after a visit to Russia in 2011, which was also the year that Prince William wed Kate Middleton, bringing a commoner into the House of Windsor. Perhaps this seeded Bourne’s choice — he is an Englishman, after all — to have his Princess Aurora fall in love with a commoner of her own.
At any rate, Aurora’s commoner, that dear Leo, proves himself to be uncommonly worthy in the end. Bloodlines, whether royal or vampiric, aren’t terribly relevant. In affairs of the heart, it’s the bite — or the kiss — that matters.
“Sleeping Beauty,” as a folk tale, is much more than nursery entertainment. In the tradition of the best stories, it’s about the human condition. Are we not all recipients, like Aurora, of multiple blessings? In all of our endless variety, are we not also capable of great and small acts? And yet, it’s fair to say we are also haunted, most of us, by insecurities and uncertainties, by the fear that all our happiness might be washed away by inattention, by fate, by some Carabossian cruelty.
How wonderful, then, that at our lowest moment, in our worst weakness, robbed of will and cursed with 100-year-old breath, someone can still love us. Can bring us back to reality with a kiss. Our prince, our pauper, our Leo.
Despite all the twists and departures, Bourne stays true to that message. He offers a humanistic view. The puppet makes clear that Baby Aurora’s temperament and passion were firmly in place before the fairies danced out their gifts. And Bourne dispenses with the restoration-of-order theme of most ballet accounts, so central to the classical arts. What happens to the royal family, to the throne? We never find out.
But love conquers, and endures. This is a tenet as ageless as the classical Greeks, and earlier. Bourne makes this point better than many a ballet version does, for so many of them progress from big dance moment to big dance moment with minimum regard for human drama. Bourne’s “Sleeping Beauty” is a love story, and not just between Aurora and her gamekeeper. The true star is the human capacity for love and its eternal availability.
Even to the undead.
continues at the Kennedy Center Opera House through Sunday. 202-467-4600 or www.kennedy-center.org