An Interview with the Ballet: Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Grand Opera House, Tuesday 12th to Saturday 16th March

Sleeping BeautyMatthew Bourne has been one of the most innovative choreographers in recent years and has sparked a new era of dramatic choreographic talent in the UK. Sleeping Beauty is the final chapter of a Petipa/ Tchaikovsky trilogy for Matthew Bourne, re-working Swan Lake and The Nutcracker previously. Coming from the world of contemporary dance and with a CV containing theatre, films and even pop music videos, you can imagine that this ballet was heavy on drama and spectacle and would not satisfy anyone expecting the classically danced fairy-tale with some of ballets greatest dances, the ‘Rose Adage’ or the ‘Lilac Fairy’, both commonly as the toughest dances in ballet.

The introduction to the story, is projected onto the curtain, telling us that the childless King and Queen, desperate for a child plead with the Black Fairy, Carabosse, who grants them their wish and soon we see a very life-like, puppet/ animated baby, running rings round the staff and at one point, scaling the lush gilt/ green curtains until they manage to catch the baby who squeals and hits and kicks until she is laid in her crib by the doting Mother. This was a genuinely funny moment and so well done, bravo to the puppeteers, whose skills are used much later in the production but it would spoil the surprise to tell you where!

The staging is mainly gloriously gothic, the Prologue begins in the year 1890, as Aurora the baby, right through until she reaches adult. The production transports us to 1911 and then as she falls asleep, she wakes up in 2011 with hoody-wearing gap-year students through to, as is projected boldly on the curtain with a peal of laughter from the audience, ‘Last Night’. The main device of this production that updates the ballet but keeps it within the long timeframe from 1890s through to modern day, is that the central role of the Lilac Fairy has been transformed into a male vampire with angel’s wings. Count Lilac as the role is renamed, fits with the gothic theme which is carried throughout the production, especially with the villainous characters who appear to be straight out of the pages of Bram Stoker, rather than twilight. Costumes and scenery reflect this period and are opulent and rich with great use of colours. This is amplified and seems somewhat suitable in a Frank Matcham theatre designed around the same time as this ballet was first choreographed by the master, Marius Petipa.

The first act sets the scene with Aurora as a mischievous baby, watched over by a full moon outside the window of her gilded crib. Creatures of the night move through the mist, propelled along by a travelator so that the dancers appear to float, adding to the sense of other-worldliness. These creatures are dressed in heavy-looking costumes with rich but muted colours of green and the King of this unearthly-looking bunch was dressed in a blue tunic with accents of purple to denote the ‘Lilac Fairy’ Aurora’s guardian angel. We do not usually conjure an impression of this role as a man with long, black hair pulled into a half pony-tail, black-banded eyes like a mask, complete with angelic wings. The baby shows no fear but only curiosity and gurgles and moves as they perform dances, in their own style to denote gifts of beauty/ grace/ passion and downright carefree precociousness that they bestow on Aurora. The role of the ‘Lilac Fairy’, is one of ballet’s most pivotal roles and it has been described as, “a dancer has to convey her majesty with absolute authority. Throughout the variation, the Lilac Fairy should project a sense of confidence with lyrical strength … lyrical dancing requires energy and attack — it’s not anaemic” and this is what we get from the dancer, played this evening by Christopher Marney.

As the fairies bestow their graces, the scene suddenly erupts and descends into the depths as the Black Fairy, who has been overlooked by the ungrateful parents, makes her presence felt in a burst of smoke and rumbling music as she ominously enters the scene flanked by man-beasts, writhing round the scene. The terrified parents and servants come to see what the commotion is. The Black Fairy, Carabosse, gives them a vision of how the baby Aurora, as a young woman, would be killed. Cleverly but somewhat terrifyingly, the grown-up Aurora with perfect body, has no facial features, a blank mask. Representing the curse, she will not live long enough to achieve her full beauty, her life will be snatched away at the point where she will flourish into womanhood, Count Lilac intervenes to mitigate the curse from death to sleep for 100 years and she will be awakened by her true lovers’ kiss. The form of her true love has a similarly featureless face but has the clothes of a young man who works with the land.

Carabosse is played by a male dancer, who is scarily tall and wears an eerily-red satin dress with black trimming and wig, her hench-men/ creatures are in black, feathery shorts, leaping around and onto pillars and bounding about the stage causing havo at Carabosse’s evil bidding. This is the first glimpse we have of the lead character, Aurora, albeit with blanked-out, featureless face. She is fearless dancer, with a body that is at sometimes rigid, as she is lifted above heads and at others, as lifeless as a rag-doll, she is manhandled as a pawn in the schemes of those who played a part in her creation. The choreography takes great courage but also a lot of finesse, going from tom-boyish frivolity to high romance, the work is characterised by so many different styles that it takes real skill to perform.

It is now 1911, Aurora is coming-of-age. Carabosse died in banishment and with it, most thought, the curse. Aurora is full of life and first love as she casts aside the trappings of her status with her boots and stockings and runs to the window. The head of a young man, dressed for his job of working outdoors. Aurora playfully hides him in her bedroom as he refuses to go back out the way he came in, by the window, and as her Nurse-maid and then Mother come in to try and tame Aurora, she hides him behind pillars and under the bed. Next we see an Edwardian pic-nic complete with all the family and guests dressed in whites for tennis and lounging about the lawn in the sunshine, care-free. The King and Queen look much like the Tsar and Tsarina as in Stephen Poliakov’s ‘Lost Prince’, the last time they were free before their assassination which is a nod to the original that was brought to the stage as the last Tsar was deposed in Revolutionary Russia. The style of this piece is very filmic with a lot of dancers on stage, waltzing round in a much more controlled manner than Aurora was wishing but she was pulled away by her parents-endorsed suitor whom again appeared to be to be a character from a film, Cecil from A Room with a View, this suitor was sedate and bookish, not at all the kind of person she would be tied to, her spirit is full of love and romance.

This sedate gathering is suddenly interrupted by an uninvited guest. Dressed in a cream suit with long black hair and a high-collared black shirt. In contrast to the insipid suitors Aurora is somewhat attracted but because of her sunny nature, she is ultimately repelled by him. The party is interrupted by that very British of intrusive guests, the rain, Aurora uses the distraction to disappear suddenly from the black-hearted son of Carabosse, Caradoc, and the guests break away. Aurora reappears alone and throws off the prim, sailor dress, exposing her undergarments but as befits the age, still very much covered with layers of slips and ruffles. She throws the dress on Leo’s, her childhood sweetheart’s, wheel-barrow as he is tending to the roses. She dances in a care-free way, she is also bare-foot. Leo comes back to get on with his work and is teased into a dance with Aurora.

I don’t have to tell anyone, how magical Tchaikovsky’s music is and the three ballets that Matthew Bourne has lovingly updated, all contain some of the world’s finest and most romantic music. Matthew Bourne uses a recording of a full orchestra and I do not feel short-changed by this as I would rather see ballet and gorgeous sets and costumes than not at all. As Leo and Aurora dance for the first time as a romantic couple, it is accompanied by a luscious cello producing painfully romantic music ever, the score is moving and heart-rending. The young couple flirt around each other and perform a series of heart-stopping lifts as the fearless Aurora launches herself into the strong grasp of Leo, toughened by years of manual labour.

Ashley Shaw plays the part of Aurora and as a dancer in Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, she probably has a lot more dancing and much more of a transformation, realistically portraying the passing of years and the growth into her own person, even though there are many that want to control her. The wicked Caradoc plans for his banished Mother’s wicked scheme to come true and he replaces Leo’s red rose of love with a black rose to poison her flourishing life and to bring about the destruction of true love. The scene becomes chaotic as Aurora’s grasp on this world weakens. Caradoc has set Leo up to take the blame as guests reappear, he replaces the red rose in his wheel-barrow for the black one and then uses Aurora’s discarded dress as further evidence of his guilt. Count Lilac intervenes at this moment to act out that Aurora is sleeping and not dead and revealing Caradoc as the black-hearted villain, Caradoc is banished, like his mother. Count Lilac sweeps the lifeless form of Aurora away to the house as the family and family friends all fall asleep, the beautiful grounds, tended lovingly by Leo are choked with weeds, like their fledgling romance. Leo is heartbroken and throws himself in anguish before the gates, Count Lilac picks him up and reveals for the first time, that he is a vampire with a soul and turns Leo into one of his own so that he and his love can survive the 100 years of sleep to awaken his love with the truth of his own heart.

We are then transported 100 years forward, to a group gap-yearers, taking pictures of themselves in homage to the fairy-tale heroine, Aurora, whose tragic story had been preserved. Our eyes are then drawn to a green tent and out climbs Leo, who has obviously been at his post, outside the gates of Aurora’s gilded prison for those 100 years. Count Lilac transports Leo into a dream world where he is drawn along by a rose, representing Aurora. The bodies in this dream sequence are clad, the women in corset and bloomers and the men, bare-chested in long-johns. With Matthew Bourne’s ballets we expect dominant male roles and we are not disappointed but we also get beautiful female roles and dancers and the dancers transform themselves from chaste to vamps throughout the production. The dream sequence ends as Count Lilac leads Leo on a tortuous journey, or at least, although the simulated labouring steps fell somewhere short of comedic and not quite dramatic.

We see Caradoc’s hoodie-henchmen with skeleton-masked faces as the modern-day epitome of fear, following Leo. Count Lilac gives Leo the rose and the key to unlock the gates and leads him to Aurora where Leo awakens her with a kiss only to be beaten by these hooded skeletal hench-men so that the first person Aurora sees as she awakes is Caradoc. She is repulsed by him and will not willingly give him her love that he expects is his birth-right as his Mother was the wronged creator of this Princess. Caradoc/ Carabosse are both played by the scarily imposing, Adam Maskell, he is manly and frightening and if love wasn’t willingly given, he would take it. He is sexually powerful and the audience fears for Aurora at his hands, especially as he carries her off to his lair which turns into a representation of a S&M club, dancers, not in romantic red but lurid red, in-your-face sexual creatures, dancing round the hero, Leo, provocatively, using stockinged legs, complete with spiky heels. Into this den of iniquity comes the representation of virginity, Aurora, although the dress is skimpier and finished with feathery detail and heavily blackened eye make-up. She looks as if she has been possessed and she has by Caradoc who has kept her captive for a year and she eventually lies on a two-person chaise in a representation of a virgin sacrifice, giving herself over to Caradoc.

Caradoc reappears as pretty much, the Master of Evil, the Devil. Matthew Bourne makes ballet accessible but I would caution that this is not a child’s fairytale and the costume and setting of this scene is genuinely terrifying. Caradoc plans not just to take Aurora but to kill her. At the point where he is about to plunge the knife into her, Count Lilac and Leo intervene, killing Caradoc with his own knife, through the heart. Aurora finally returns to her true heart’s desire and they are united as one.

This is theatrical ballet at its best. Vampires are wonderfully popular at the moment and we’ve seen vampires for teenagers and vampires trying to be human in Barry Island, so why not in the world of ballet where stories are highly fantastical and other-worldly. Ballet does not always need to be cloistered within classicism, ballet lives and breathes in the modern world and is not confined as a dusty museum piece. It is great to see the most traditional of works, given a theatrical make-over with moments of high drama and amazing sets and costumes and a story that largely, works in the modern-age. I am a devotee of classical ballet and I like to see the purely classical works and companies such as the Royal Ballet, coming to City of Culture on the 30th and 31st March alongside the ballet theatre companies such as Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures or Northern Ballet, coming in May to the Grand Opera House with The Great Gatsby. What ‘ballet theatre’ lacks in pure technicality, makes up for in drama and acting out the dance. This Sleeping Beauty was told with the greatest of theatre and woke the story from its slumber, giving the ballet a very bright new future.

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Trocks, Grand Opera House Belfast, 27th February 2013

We’re Men in Tights …

And Tutus and Pointe Shoes

But what we really are, is phenomenally talented dancers, completing some of the most astonishing ballet dancing ever seen.  Les Ballet Trockadero des Monte Carlo graced the stage of the Grand Opera House for a two-night run. This all-male company, playing dual roles of male and female also deliver comedy of the highest order.  The show commences with the ominous announcement of cast changes, “in the great Russian tradition”, a long string of names, some comically changed, especially the last “Miss NotNearlyGoodEnough” who had left the company to join the “Ballet Imperial de Strabane” with Strabane said in perfect ‘Norn Irn’.  This is cleverly done, in more ways than one, as it sets the tone for the evening with a wink to the local audience they were entertaining.

The company performed some of ballet’s most popular works, starting with ‘Swan Lake , Act II’, complete with White Swan, a Prince, white signets dancing the famous pas-de-quatre across the stage.  After an interval, this was followed by the ‘Black Swan pas-de-deux’ with the most famous sequence of steps in ballet.  A solo dancer then treated us with an interlude and the ‘Dying Swan’ (which is a separate work, made famous by Anna Pavlova which pretty much died out with her).  Then ‘Pas-de-Quatre’,  a gala work celebrating the most famous Russian dancers of the time and described as, “survives today as one of the most charming (and silly) evocations of Romantic Ballet in the 1840s”.  The final work used the entirety of this magnificent touring company, who number about twenty dancers, in a Bolshoi-inspired pastiche, ‘Walpurgis Night’, which was a Grecian-themed work based on fairies and nymphs, except the fairies were solidly-built men, some with chest hair springing out over their tutus and ludicrously overdone make-up.

The Trocks are an internationally renowned company, formed in New York, nearly forty years ago, at a time when one of ballet’s most famous Fathers, George Balanchine, was nearing the end of his time with the New York City Ballet.  The Trocks were probably a response to the serious romantic ideal that Balanchine was foremost advocate of, the perfectly-formed ballerina which sometimes meant dancers were not so much encouraged but expected to be stick thin. There is a popular story that  Balanchine would run his knuckles down a dancer’s sternum, and if he didn’t touch bone, she would never meet this ideal.  Balanchine was one of the last remnants of one of the founding companies, Ballets Russes.  The Trocks are steeped into the Russian traditions but are also able to sympathetically send up the more ridiculous traditions but ,as with all perfect farces,  the comic effect comes from their  being amazingly proficient in what they do.  The dancers come from some of the world’s top companies, mainly in America but also Cuba, Paris, Italy and the English National Ballet.

The Trocks’ dancing is like a mirror held up to ballet but from the other side.  There is no question that the dancing is mesmerising, especially as preconceptions suggest that men should not be able to dance in pointe shoes, lift male dancers who are obviously much bigger than they are, from a standing position to above their heads.   However, as excellent as the dancing was, the Trocks’ raison d’etre is to play ballet for comedic value, so the move would be executed perfectly and then the dancer would fall in a heap, or a spectacular leap would be executed that would result in a ‘swan dive’ ending with a face-plant into the floor and the unfortunate dancer having his feathers ruffled and letting his male partner know of his disgust. The full range of the heavily made-up faces are painted to accentuate the ridiculousness of these larger-than-normal-sized dancers;  and the more comedic the role, the more exaggerated the make-up.  The make-up is another star of the production as a visual enhancement for the production and its dancers.

The dancers in their corps work brilliantly; as we know equal star billing in Swan Lake goes to the corps and the elements are there but enhanced with strategically choreographed pratt-falls and dancers running into each other or turning in the wrong direction.  One of the funniest moments of the production was when  the character of Rothbart, the evil magician who’d turned the beautiful girls into trapped but equally beautiful swans, chases the not so delicate dancers round  a little bit too zealously so that they look pretty much scared for their life and lose the calm floatiness of the original production.  One of the dancers with a most memorable face, who played the production to perfection for laughs with a wide-eyed and mouthed expression, completed flips out of nowhere, pretty much from a standing start.  Swan Lake ended with the cast taking a bow, a bouquet is presented to the Prima Ballerina who eyes up the man who carries it on under the jealous eye of her leading man and, still in character, the closed curtain opens prematurely to reveal the dancers fighting with each other in a scene reminiscent of Black Swan or Gelsey Kirkland’s autobiography  where she details the problems between herself and Baryshnikov to do with the presenting of flowers and his status as the ‘Alpha Male’.

There are a lot of ballet references, but these does not detract from the evening being accessible for all, whether there for the first time, never having seen ballet before or a ballet regular.  Black Swan made a major impression on audiences and this popularised dance was next for the Trocks treatment and as this work started, it was always in the back of  our mind that a male dancer could not possibly execute the infamous 32 fouettes  – but I will not spoil the surprise, suffice to say, oxygen canisters were required.  The male dancer playing the Prince, Siegfried, was about the size and body mass of 12-year-old, performing the leaps and jumps around the stage but also lifting the much larger, heavier dancer above his head and who would wrap his leg around Siegfried’s head.  Black Swan was played pretty much straight with the White Swan occasionally interrupting the scene to be forcibly ejected in a parody of jealousy when the dancers let their more butch side out.

The next work ripe for a parody is the Dying Swan which is nothing to do with Swan Lake but was a short work choreographed for Prima Ballerina, Anna Pavlova.  The part was played by a dancer, not so much reminiscent of a dying swan, as a turkey twizzler that would have Jamie Oliver launching a new campaign.  This was a solo work and his knobbly knees find themselves heading into some very ugly positions before he dramatically realises and corrects his turn-out.  The dancer was eventually put out of his misery to find himself on the wrong side of the curtain and then losing his way.  The work had fantastic humour and it made me think about how we only really accept the perfect form in body and the lengths that dancers go to, to achieve this and then that there were some mesmerising male dancers, playing male roles that in any other company would not be given these lead roles because they were so tiny; but then they defied convention to lift their heavier, larger male dancers.

As another homage to Ballets Russes , their next ‘work’ was the fluffy, pink meringue that was ‘Pas-de-Quatre’.  Four Prima Ballerinas competing for supremacy with the obviously ‘senior’ dancer expecting obeisance as her junior dancers split themselves down the middle to bow to her.  The stand-out moment is the final scene with the dancers grouped in a final circle, only for one to find herself locked out and having to burst into the circle in a brilliant flying leap.

The last performance of the evening was a full company work with equal male and female roles.  There were Grecian god, statuesque lead characters dressed in gold and a pas-de-trois of female dancers that was actually beautifully executed that I forgot I was watching men dancing.  The corps were dressed either in fuscia-pink toga-style dresses or as nymphs, which were the male roles.  Another tiny member of the company played a sprite who created jumps and mischief wherever he went.  It must be massive fun for the dancers to turn the ballet world on its head but it must also be liberating to be able to take off the pointe shoes and dance as men as some get the chance to do, whilst the corps lie with their heads poking out from the wings,  as you see one enjoying herself too much and tucking into her prop of a bunch of grapes, more like an audience member.  This last work is a feast for the eyes, there is a lot of colour and so many lifts and twirls and jumping that it is a fitting piece to end on.

However, they had one last major surprise for the audience which has us rising to our feet in the ultimate mark of respect, as after taking their bows for the amazing show that they had just performed, the River Dance music kicked in and the whole company performed a perfect Irish dance in pointe shoes with legs flinging towards the sky and feet bouncing off the floor and all in perfect timing and  then  the line splits round the sides to meet in the middle and then advance to the front of the stage.  This just blew the whole of the Grand Opera House away – and don’t forget, this was largely a seasoned ballet audience, who have seen many productions over the years.  I, for one, was as entertained as the person beside me who was an absolute ballet novice.

The Trocks certainly fulfilled their mission statement and original purpose, “to bring the pleasure of dance to the widest possible audience “ for these two nights in Belfast.  It has been about ten years since they last graced these shores and I, for one will be begging for their return.

But, in the meantime, it will be back to the serious business of Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty from the 12th – 16th March, although there is nothing particularly conventional about Matthew Bourne either,  as he adds the contemporary touch of vampires to his production.  The Trocks, far from making me see the flaws in ballet and ballet dancers as slightly ridiculous,  has made me so much more impressed by how fantastically talented ballet dancers are and how they do not have any limits to their talents.  The Trocks could have films made about them and their story should be told loud and clear and every time we get a bit too serious about the art form, I will think about this night.