Los Angeles/Tour Dance Review: MATTHEW BOURNE’S SLEEPING BEAUTY (Ahmanson Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on November 23, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours


It’s a shame that Matthew Bourne’s narrative began to fizzle out in the second act of his Sleeping Beauty, for up to then this extraordinarily imaginative and enthralling retelling was close to proving itself another feather in the cap of this British director known for his Dance Theater productions. As with Swan Lake (1998), which reinvented the feathered fable as a gay love story, Bourne took the basic plot and four-act structure of Marius Petipa’s 1890 ballet, trimmed down and pre-recorded Tchaikovsky’s music (which normally runs three hours), and turned the tale of the slumbering princess who awakens with a romantic smooch into a Gothic fairy tale spanning a century. (Just so you’re not confused, the actual title is Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance.)

In the first act, a childless Victorian-era royal couple is presented a girl by Carabosse, a fairy from the Dark Side who feels slighted when her efforts get bupkes from the sovereigns. When some local fairies drop in to bestow gifts to the child Aurora (an uproariously brilliant puppet maneuvered by the cast), Carabosse arrives with her two humpy henchmen to present the well-known curse.

Bourne keeps the sprites and spells of the source material, but there is no spindle of a spinning wheel familiar from Charles Perrault’s La Belle au bois dormant and the Disney flick; instead, the girl will grow to adolescence and prick her finger on a black rose and die (this scenario is beautifully presented with the future Aurora appearing Tom Jackson Greaves and Hannah Vassalo in MATTHEW BOURNE'S SLEEPING BEAUTY - photo by Simon Annandin a creepy faceless mask). Count Lilac, King of the Fairies, alters the hex with a non-verbal, “Not die but sleep until awakened by true love’s kiss.”

Up to now, the storytelling is a bit murky: We’re not exactly sure what gifts the good fairies bestow on the little princess, but they appear as silvery feathers; and if you don’t already know the basic plot, the curse and its antidote are somewhat confusing. But who cares? Set and costume designer Lez Brotherston puts golden black columns and sumptuous swagged drapes in Aurora’s opulent apartment; and there is a ginormous full moon glowing behind French doors, all magically lit by Paule Constable. Foy-like wires are unnecessary, as two moving sidewalks enhance the illusion of flying.

Cut to 1911 on the day of Aurora’s coming out party. As the family and staff busily prepare, she amusingly hides from them her amorous toying with young lad Leo, the Royal Gamekeeper (we know he’s a gamekeeper because it’s in the program). The cast of MATTHEW BOURNE'S SLEEPING BEAUTY - photo by Simon AnnandLater, in between meetings with guests at the garden party, Aurora and Leo execute a pas de deux which is robust, sexy and thrilling, sort of like “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” on Edwardian steroids.

Brotherston’s best work of the evening is on display: A 3-D backdrop of an estate in the vein of Blenheim Palace looms in gorgeous perspective behind a giant sculpture of an angel who’s either sleeping or crying. The ladies off-white dresses are delicately textured with crochet lace and braided trimming, and the men are dashing in their like-colored afternoon suits.

We learned via Disneyesque “Once Upon a Time” supertitles on the scrim between scene changes that Carabosse is dead. Her son Caradoc (a dark fairy invented by Bourne) arrives at the fête in dark Gothic regalia and, presenting his card, is allowed by the parents to compete with Aurora’s many suitors. In true True Blood fashion, the swarthy but pale-faced fairy hypnotizes Aurora and hands her a black rose; after Liam Mower in MATTHEW BOURNE'S SLEEPING BEAUTY - photo by Mikah Smillieshe pricks her finger and falls into a trance, Leo is suspected of foul play and runs off. Count Lilac finds him, bares his fangs and digs them into Leo’s neck. End Act I.

Classical ballet is not Bourne’s métier. Rather, with the aid of associate choreographer Christopher Marney, he realizes a startlingly fresh mash-up of classical and modern dance with physicalized narrative. Yet even more exciting than the enchanting movement and luxurious production values in the first act is the storytelling, which is enhanced by individualistic personalities, big enough that they are projected to the Ahmanson’s back wall.

Unlike past Disney princesses sweet and coy, Aurora (Hannah Vassallo) is a willful, bratty, tough and lusty adolescent (if Angelina Jolie could dance, this would be her role). Even the parents, King Benedict (Edwin Ray) and Queen Eleanor (Daisy May Kemp), who don’t have a lot of stage time, are loaded with personality, generated by the actors’ movement and facial expressions; his posturing and her affection are both evident. Also drenched in disposition are the bumptious but accommodating Hannah Vassallo and Dominic North in MATTHEW BOURNE'S SLEEPING BEAUTY - photo by Mikah SmilliePalace Footmen (Leon Moran and Phil Jack Gardner) and the prim yet warm Nanny (Nicole Kabera), as well as the fairies and party guests.

Not so the Evil Fairy or the lover boy—and that’s why act two falls apart. It is now 2011 and tourists take photos of themselves in front of the palace’s locked gates, decrepit and vine-covered. It’s unclear whether the spell ends at one hundred years and true-love’s kiss is needed, but Count Lilac unlocks the gate and lets Leo inside the grounds. Suddenly we are deluged with the Evil Fairy and his minions dancing and dancing and dancing monotonously in the woods (even the gorgeous waltzes during the coming-of-age party came close to being wearisome). There are some terrific twists added to the story, but with little exposition, the eye-candy element wears off and the gloriously phenomenal dancers work their butts (and wings) off to little effect (to keep the energy from flagging, there are two casts).

There is a lovely all-male pas de deux and a clever interpolation of voguing in Caradoc’s ballroom/boudoir (I don’t know where we are exactly), but they too become tiresome as the darkly lit Goth-infused shenanigans begin to lose our interest.

On top of this, a menacing presence is missing, largely due to the character of Caradoc (Adam Maskell, doubling as Carabosse); Maskell certainly gets sinister across, but you never see him actually interact with others, so we don’t know if he’s temperamental or humorous or what—and this guy and his shiny black pony tail appear for much of the second act. Leo (Dominic North) also has little personality—unless you consider amorous swooping and heroic leaping “personality”—and he takes up a lot of time jogging around in a gray hooded sweatshirt. This is also why Dominic North and Hannah Vassallo in MATTHEW BOURNE'S SLEEPING BEAUTY - photo by Mikah Smilliethe ultimate conquering of evil, which happens way too quickly, seems disingenuous.

More questions arise: If Leo has been bitten, why isn’t he biting anyone else a hundred years later? He now has wings and sleeps like a homeless person outside of the gate which blocks his true love, but is he fairy? Human? Vampire? A Vamanairy? Wait, I’m confused. It wasn’t the evil fairy who bit our hero, it was the good fairy. So maybe Leo isn’t really a vampire, he’s just a fairy. So, does getting bit in the neck by a fairy make you a fairy? And what’s with the vampire thing if there’s no blood? It’s a wasted opportunity because the vampirism otherwise added an exciting element (Mr. North’s spectacular body control is amazing to watch as he writhes in slow motion when being bitten…more of that, please). In the end, this version’s grisliness is tame compared to some of Sleeping Beauty’s many narratives of the past, including the Grimm Brothers, which include rape and child-eating ogres.

Bourne casts a spell with that first act and it really should not be missed. You just need to ask yourself if you want to leave at intermission high on the mysticism and beauty, or stay and hope the confusing and cursed second act doesn’t make you sleepy.

photos by Mikah Smillie and Simon Annand

Sleeping Beauty
a New Adventures production
presented by Center Theatre Group
and Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center
Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave.
scheduled to end on December 1, 2013
for tickets, call (213) 972-4400 or visit www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

robyn gardenhire November 25, 2013 at 2:21 pm

Well said!


Vivian February 14, 2015 at 1:01 am

Hello. Could you please tell me what you used to project/show the full moon images in your pictures/production? I am putting on a production and I need that background. You assistance is very much appreciated. Thank you.


Tony Frankel February 14, 2015 at 9:48 am

I would recommend, Vivian, that you contact Matthew Bourne’s production company, New Adventures.


Vivian February 17, 2015 at 1:45 pm

Thank you so much!


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