Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty

Before its Grand Opera House run beginning March 12, Jane Coyle travels to Sadler's Wells to experience a fairytale for the Twilight generation

Winter has descended with a vengeance upon central London. Huge snowflakes are whirling around the streets of Islington, snarling up the heavy traffic, which all seems to be heading in one direction: towards Sadler's Wells Theatre, the world's unofficially acknowledged Number 1 venue for international dance.

Its angular, glass-walled building stands on the same Rosebery Avenue site where, in 1683, only the second public theatre in London after the Restoration was opened by Richard Sadler. It is home to New Adventures, the company founded and directed by Matthew Bourne, one of the most distinctive, influential and highly regarded figures in modern dance.

From March 12 - 16, New Adventures will relocate to the Grand Opera House in Belfast with its latest creation, a gorgeously opulent, subversive, rose-strewn new take on the favourite fairytale, Sleeping Beauty.

Forget the ingrained images of sequinned tutus and classical en pointe technique. Bourne, an expert in the art of storytelling, brings the traditional tale of the cursed princess and her handsome prince bang into today's Twilight zone with a piece which, while remaining true to the spirit of the original, is as hip and cool and contemporary as any live performance piece could be. It is the ultimate fairytale for our times.

For all his modesty and low-key geniality, dance-maker, choreographer and former dancer Bourne is, quite simply, a genius. His is a searching imagination that, seemingly, knows no bounds, brooks no refusals in terms of what can be put onto a stage or, indeed, any branch of the visual media.

Even in its condensed form, his professional CV runs to volumes. He has won awards too numerous to mention, has broken new ground in the variety of dance forms and styles he has tackled, and, most crucially, has built up a close-knit team of individuals who not only share his limitless vision but also possess the talent, courage and enterprise to translate it into a string of endlessly successful productions.

Very much a man of his time, Bourne, nevertheless, cherishes a profound love and respect for dance history and tradition. While his all-male Swan Lake prompted raised eyebrows when it was premiered in 1995, and the addition of an exclamation mark to the title of his 2002 Nutcracker! hinted at all manner of mischief, his unflinching devotion to and reverence for Tchaikovsky's sublime scores could not be questioned.

His decision to complete the Tchaikovsky trilogy with Sleeping Beauty was taken after years of careful thought, research and no little trepidation. The earliest versions of this enchanting though slightly queasy tale – and subsequent famous revisions of it – contain little of substance in terms of evolving storyline and characterisation.

The love affair, such as it is, is an instantaneous affair, embarked upon by an unfortunate young woman who scarcely has time to rub her eyes after being in a deep sleep for 100 years. But the hallmark of Marius Petipa's first ballet incarnation at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg is its heady combination of movement, with that unforgettable, haunting score, which Bourne freely admits became his guide and inspiration.

Writing in the official Sadler's Wells programme, Bourne said: 'If one is approaching Sleeping Beauty as a piece of dance theatre, then it is the music which Tchaikovsky wrote for his collaboration with choreographer Marius Petipa that must give the piece its structure.

'To be honest, the story has always left me a little cold,' he continues. 'What the ballet score gives you that the fairytale does not is reasons to dance – or ideas for dance. It dicates the action and adds emotion, drama and character. In fact, it becomes the script.'

Matthew Bourne

 

At the Wednesday matinee performance at Sadler's Wells, there is not an empty seat to be seen in the 1500-seat auditorium. It is packed to the gills with an eclectic audience of all ages and backgrounds, many of whom have braved the snow and travelled far for a glimpse of Bourne's theatrical magic.

An elderly couple from Bournemouth have been driven to London by their daughter, a school party of excited teenagers – and their equally thrilled teachers – have made a two-hour coach trip from Peterborough, and a woman has taken the train alone from Norwich for the privilege. They all agree that they have been richly rewarded for their efforts.

Designer Lez Brotherston, a long-time collaborator of Bourne, has unleashed the full battery of his visual brilliance onto a set and costumes that portray a narrative journey from Victorian times into the Edwardian age and right up to the present day.

The story begins in 1890, the year in which the ballet was premiered. Princess Aurora's 21st birthday party is held in the grounds of the family country house during the famous golden summer of 1911. A century of imprisonment in a dark, thorn-encrusted otherworld follows, peopled by vampires, winged gargoyles and scheming fairies.

The princess is then rescued from a sinister ritualistic wedding by the love of her life, the palace gamekeeper Leo, with whom she shared tender, carefree moments before falling under the curse of the evil Carabosse. Thus, the longed-for happy ending arrives in 2011, the very year in which Bourne started work on the final piece in the trilogy.

Brotherston's design scheme, brought thrillingly to life by Paule Constable's atmospheric lighting, is a feast of gothic opulence and mystery. His colour palette reflects the times that are in it, running from lustrous bronze, gold and granite to sheeny midnight blue and smoky grey, fresh cream and green, culminating in a decadent blaze of scarlet and black in a blue neon-lit nightclub.

Here, Tchaikovsky's compelling folk rhythms have never registered so sexily. And as the story unfolds, the motifs of the lush red rose and the prickly black rose represent the struggle between good and evil, as well as the darker symbolism of this rites-of-passage tale.

'As well as the classic good versus evil story, Sleeping Beauty is about growing up and rebirth,' Bourne notes. 'It is full of fascinating symbolism. The prick of the finger and the letting of blood are clearly symbolic of a young girl's journey into womanhood.

'At the end of the story, the kiss of true love and the acceptance of the Prince, who has also had to prove his manhood, suggest that they are both ready for physical love and fulfillment.

'It's true I have taken a few liberties with Tchaikovsky, which I hope he will forgive as he, above all others, is the reason why I had to make this piece. As it completes my trilogy of the maestro's only three complete ballets, I humbly dedicate this production to his memory.'

It is impossible not to be charmed by Hannah Vassallo's pert, wide-eyed Aurora, a wild child, who runs and dances barefoot and seems to belong to a different universe from that of her strait-laced royal parents. Her early incarnation as a very knowing toddler is captured by an astonishingly lifelike puppet, with whom every member of the audience falls hopelessly in love.

Dominic North grows steadily in stature as the ingenuous Leo, whose devotion and stamina are put sternly to the test by Tom Jackson Greaves's threatening, saturnine Caradoc – the newly created son of Carabosse.

Bourne's rigorous, carefully structured refashioning of the story – his use of worldly symbolism and the dominant influence of a subversive fairyworld – have placed this Sleeping Beauty into an entirely new context.

There is much to delight children and keep on side the ballet afficionados, but this is a piece of dance theatre that will strike a resounding chord of recognition and identification with potentially new audiences of young adults.

The five performances at the Belfast Grand Opera House are the production's only dates in Ireland. It may be a well worn cliché but, in this case, the observation is unequivocally true – miss it at your peril.

Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty is at the Grand Opera House, Belfast from March 12 -16, with matinees on Thursday and Saturday.

Sleeping Beauty