Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty at Sadlers Wells

After famously reworking Swan Lake and The Nutcracker ballet’s based on Tchaikovsky’s scores, Matthew Bourne has produced a new work inspired by the music for Sleeping Beauty.  On the Wednesday after New Year, the matinée performance at Sadlers Wells was a magnet for dance loving families and the audience was filled with little girls in Alice bands and short, cross your heart cardigans.

Fortunately, we had a child with us, so I felt no shame in asking for a reminder of the traditional story.  Is there really nothing more to it than a baby is cursed, she grows up, pricks her finger, falls asleep for ages, and is woken up by a kiss from a prince who hacks his way through the wild wood to find her?  It’s not that much of a romance, if the hero only turns up in the last act, is it?

I have a very vague memory of being taken to an open air performance of the ballet by my French pen friend’s mother when I made my first visit to France when I was about 14.  It was somewhere near the Louvre, and was the Ballet of the Opera do Paris, and the little bit that I remember is that we were a long way from the stage so the performers were tiny distant shapes.  Towards the end, synchronised with a fantastically thunderous drum rhythm, a male dancer leapt across the stage like  scarlet lightening, his legs split straight out beneath him, his arms driving him forward; again and again he jumped and flew, each time the bass drum sounded.

It may not sound like much of a memory, and it may not even be accurate, but it was the first time I had seen ballet on the stage, and something about the visceral feel of the drum and the colour streaking across the stage has stayed with me.

You can see then, that I approached the show without much of an idea of what to expect.  Once again, Bourne has altered the story to fit his purpose, so there is a cheeky baby, portrayed by a puppet which crawls across the floor and climbs the curtains, and generally dominates whenever she is on stage, there is romance for Aurora before she is sent to sleep by the prick from a rose’s thorn, indeed there were rivals for her affections: the dramatically dashing, but evil son of the bad fairy, and the rather awkward gardener from her father’s estate; there’s some vampire action, some dancing on a moving pavement and a generally gothic look to the whole thing, as well as a few things I didn’t understand at all.

Sometimes, with Bourne productions I have seen, I feel there is too much miming and walking about on the stage, where a quick bit of dialogue could get the show moving along quicker to the next bit of dancing.  That would not be a complaint I would level at Sleeping Beauty, which included plenty of spinning, jumping and twirling; I especially enjoyed the section where Aurora is asleep but dancing floppily, held up by her partner none the less, and, when he fails to rouse her, the bad suitor, bored by her, pushes her away and she rolls across the stage.

The set and costumes were very beautiful, and there is a plenty to be amused by, but, when it got to that section of the music that I recall across the decades, the choreography didn’t inspire in me that same wonder I had experienced as a teenager; and I felt curiously disappointed.

Now I’ve read some newspaper reviews of the show I know there are some jokes, especially in the naming of some of the characters, which I missed because I’m too mean to buy a programme in the belief that performances should speak for themselves.

Taken as a Christmas show, it had the fun costumes and pantomime theatricality, but I think with ballet generally, I do come away feeling that I’ve missed something.

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