Lush staging, elaborate storytelling and thrilling dance are more than enough to sweep audiences away in Matthew Bourne's stunningly dramatic version of Sleeping Beauty.
This gothic spin on the original 1890 Tchaikovsky-Petipa ballet combines high danger and awesome beauty in an all-new version of the classic fairy tale that fleshes out Princess Aurora’s love story and humanizes the heroine. The dance, created in 2012 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Bourne’s New Adventures company in London, has just begun its first U.S. tour, with Cleveland the second stop after Des Moines, Iowa.
On Wednesday night, the ballet marked its 225th performance, playing at PlayhouseSquare’s Palace Theatre. Romantic leads Hannah Vassallo and Dominic North were magnificent as Princess Aurora and her sweetheart Leo, bringing young love alive in all its tenderness and playfulness.
Bourne has created the character of Leo, the royal gamekeeper, as Aurora’s childhood sweetheart so we have a vested interest in their love before the princess must go to sleep for 100 years. Audiences of all ages will be able to follow Bourne’s updates to this timeless story, without a word being said onstage other than some projected writing on a scrim of drapes indicating setting and time periods.
This lavish production spans 121 years, beginning with the birth of Princess Aurora in 1890. A lively puppet baby operated by nearly invisible black-clad dancers shows the princess getting into trouble as the castle is enlivened by her presence.
The puppet takes on lifelike qualities as the baby, sitting up in her crib, is engaged by six fairies who visit her to bestow gifts. In this fast-paced ballet, each of the fairy’s solo variations is short but sweet as they present their gifts. Although Bourne has given each a new name and personality, ranging from Ardor, the Fairy of Passion, to Tantrum, the Fairy of Temperament, several of their personalities are difficult to distinguish from each other.
Fairy costumes by Lez Brotherston are the most fascinating in the show — not sweet and romantic but edgy and gothic, with skirts that look like molting feathers in fall leaf tones. Each fairy sports a black makeup mask around the eyes and little wings.
This production has a grandeur that’s intoxicating, with rich visuals that range from an idyllic outdoor castle setting to a spooky forest with a full moon. Lighting by Paule Constable is exceptional, with beautiful beams of sunshine surrounding the castle in a party scene, shafts of light Leo uses to make his way through the dark forest, and the glaring red light of a demonic wedding scene.
It doesn’t take long for darkness to arrive in the form of Carabosse, the dark fairy. She was played Wednesday by the imposing Adam Maskell, a tall, threatening presence who was just as powerful later, playing Carabosse’s evil son, Caradoc.
From the moment Caradoc grabs Aurora by the neck while dancing as her suitor at her coming-of-age party, we know our spirited heroine is in trouble.
At the other extreme, the frolicking between Aurora and Leo is unforgettable as Leo pops into the princess’s window and hides under her bed and behind huge drapes. Later, their dance outdoors around a bench is lovely, as is the adorable way they hide behind a wheelbarrow to watch the party, lying down hand in hand.
But Aurora can’t escape the curse placed upon her at birth. She ends up in the land of the sleepwalkers, blindfolded and floating around in limbo with the aid of blackness and stage magic.
Leading lady Vassallo is a strong actress who believably switches Aurora’s facial expressions and demeanor from fun-loving to hypnotized to vacant at the drop of a hat.
I’ve never seen a heroine so manipulated through dance, as the blindfolded Aurora is lifted, carried and moved by two male, bare-chested sleepwalkers in short white pants. Later, as Caradoc tries to wake her, Vassallo’s body is wonderfully rubbery as he tries to pose her and make her walk, only to have her slump lifelessly.
It takes extreme skill on Vassallo’s part to make this rubberiness look so natural. Simple movement also means so much in this ballet: When Aurora is revived, the tender way she nuzzles Leo’s little wings (he has become a fairy) is exhilarating.
After Aurora’s 100 years of sleep, the story is brought to 2011, with modern characters trying to peek into the locked castle gate. Bourne has the evil Caradoc tricking Aurora’s true love and a violent, cultlike wedding ensues.
In this scene, with the company dressed in blood red, the forceful, modern style of dance feels like a disconnect with Tchaikovsky’s thundering classical score. While the dance in this grotesque scene isn’t my favorite, it serves to further the story.
Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty is a smash hit in London and the U.K., drawing droves of musical theater audiences into dance. On Wednesday night, with Bourne in attendance, the Cleveland audience gave his magnificently reconceived ballet a well-deserved standing ovation, cheering with abandon each time the cast took additional bows. Bourne’s imaginative work is bound to continue to astound audiences throughout its seven-city U.S. tour, which will wrap up in Los Angeles in early December.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.