Anatomy of a Ballet: Inside Matthew Bourne's "Sleeping Beauty"

Published in the October/November 2013 issue.

Since its St. Petersburg debut in 1890, Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, choreographed by Marius Petipa, has been hailed as a near-perfect example of classicism, and criticized as a thinly plotted framework for a grueling set of variations. Nearly every ballet company has a version; most follow the traditional story and choreography. Enter Matthew Bourne, the British choreographer who found international success with his all-male-swan version of Swan Lake. Working with designer Lez Brotherston, Bourne gives his Sleeping Beauty a hefty dose of goth chic. His new production, which is currently touring the U.S. (see box), starts in 1890, and has Aurora reawaken in the 21st century. Pointe spoke with Bourne and Brotherston about their take on the ballet.

Tour Dates
September 27–28: Des Moines, IA, Des Moines Performing Arts’ Civic Center
October 1–13: Cleveland, OH, PlayhouseSquare
October 15–20: Schenectady, NY, Proctors
October 23–November 3: New York, NY, New York City Center
November 5–10: Charlotte, NC, Blumenthal Performing Arts’ Belk Theater
November 12–17: Washington, DC, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
November 21–December 1: Los Angeles, CA, Ahmanson Theatre

Hannah Vassallo and Dominic North (photo by Mikah Smillie). “We tried to show the timeline of the story. In most versions everyone wears tutus and ends up 100 years later in exactly the same place. I’ve never seen a production that really demonstrated that 100 years had passed. Our design is a way to show that effectively. It must serve the narrative; it shouldn’t just be striking.” —Lez Brotherston

Under the spell of Carabosse’s demonic son (photo by Mikah Smillie). “The starting point for me was identifying what I didn’t like in the traditional version. The main thing was the lack of a proper love story. The prince arrives very late, and there isn’t much to go on. I addressed that by creating a new character, Leo, who is Aurora’s childhood sweetheart. Aurora’s love interest needed to stay alive for 100 years, so we decided he would be a vampire. It didn’t seem so crazy since the story starts near the time Dracula was written. It’s a gothic love story, a love story across time.” —Matthew Bourne

Going goth: a little Tchaikovsky, a little Dracula (photo by Simon Annand). “We created vampiric fairies for Act I. They look like people who’ve been around for a long time; they’re slightly wild and not exactly pretty. They’re all characterized differently, and they have the traditional variations, but there’s a darkness to them: They have names like Feral and Tantrum.” —MB

Aurora romps Isadora-style at an Edwardian-era tennis party (photo by Mikah Smillie). “I wanted Aurora to reflect her time. She turns 21 in 1911, so within that context, I saw her as a forward-looking, spirited young woman. I used Isadora Duncan as inspiration—she was changing dance at that point in history. Our Aurora is a woman of nature, she loves dancing without her shoes on. She’s not a regular princess.” —MB

A Lilac Fairy with some unexpected powers (photo by Simon Annand). “Each act is different in style because it reflects the period in which it’s set. Act I looks a bit like a ballet, with all the variations. In 1911, you have new social dance crazes. By the end, we’re in the present day. It tells you it’s contemporary through the clothes and the movement style.” —MB