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Matthew Bourne Turns “Sleeping Beauty” into a Spellbinding Gothic Romance

With "Sleeping Beauty", the third ballet in Matthew Bourne's Tchaikovsky trilogy that includes "Nutcracker!" and "Swan Lake", the award-winning British choreographer has once again proved himself to be not only a gifted dancemaker but a masterful storyteller. The production, correctly billed as "A Gothic Romance", is playing at New York's City Center on West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues until November 3rd with the superb original cast of world class dancers from Bourne's London-based New Adventures company.

In order to turn Perrault's fairy tale into a narrative that has a compelling dramatic arc, Bourne eschewed the implausible love-at-first-kiss plot device by introducing Aurora's youthful suitor during the Coming of Age celebration when she turns 21. He is a commoner who serves as the Royal Gamekeeper. The charmingly feisty princess, clearly delighting in her parents' disapproval of the match, wins us over so that we're already rooting for a happily-ever-after ending. Yet in Bourne's own words, "Aurora's blossoming love for Leo, her childhood sweetheart, is cut short by the fulfilment of Carabosse's curse. The dilemma becomes 'how can he still be around for her when she wakes up in 100 years' time."

I won't be a spoiler because the solution is a gripping moment that will surely make you gasp in surprise. Suffice it to say that a clue to the mystery lies in the fact that instead of the traditional Lilac Fairy who foils the evil Carabosse, Bourne has created the role of Count Lilac - inspired, perhaps, by Bram Stoker's famously macabre Gothic protagonist yet imbued by Bourne with a force for good.

Act One when Aurora is a baby is set in 1890, the year of the premiere of Petipa's "Sleeping Beauty" and a time when fairies and magical spells fuelled the collective consciousness. Aurora's 21st birthday takes place, as Bourne put it in his Playbill note, in "the famously golden Edwardian summer of 1911" during which Bourne introduces us to Carabosse's son who is out to get revenge for the fate of his late mother. The awakening scene and Aurora's wedding move us to the present day in 2011. This clever timeline is held together with the running theme of a red versus a black rose. Bourne propels the scenario out of the realm of mere make-believe and into an imaginative version of the here and now, complete with people using cell phones to take selfies. As a result, we truly care about the hero and heroine.

That said, I was not at all enchanted by Bourne's decision to use a comical marionette as the infant Aurora in Act One. Most of the audience seemed to enjoy this oddity, especially when the puppet woke up in the crib and watched the fairies dance. However, I found the ploy to be supremely distracting. Not only that, but the puppet came back for a cameo in Act Four that struck me as just plain silly. Again, I won't be a spoiler but I think you'll guess what's going to happen before it does. I know I did. Plenty of people roared with approval so maybe you'll be in that camp. As for me, I groaned.

Other than my quibble about the puppet, though, I give Bourne's "Sleeping Beauty" two thumbs up. You won't see waist pirouettes or balances on one leg or storybook characters or tutus or pointe shoes. What you will see is the supremely musical use of Tchaikovsky's score. Bourne's choreography is fresh and expressive yet retains hints of the Petipa version, including a whimsical nod to the "finger variation" of the fairy ususally called Violente but here named Tantrum and danced by a man.

On opening night, Hannah Vassallo was radiant and roguish as the wild child princess while Chris Trenfield turned in a terrific performance as the endearingly ardent Leo. No wonder Aurora fell for one of the help! Applause as well for Adam Maskell in the dual role of Carabosse/Caradoc. His commanding presence sent shivers down my spine, as did Christopher Marney's convincing portrayal of Count Lilac. The top-notch design team deserves special mention, too: Lez Brotherston for sets and costumes, Paule Constable for lighting, and Paul Groothuis for sound design.

Overall, Bourne's version of one of the most important ballets in the classical canon is a "Sleeping Beauty" destined to become an enduring favorite in its own right. If you're in NYC between now and November 3rd, don't miss this opportunity to see it for yourself!


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