THERE are many reasons to honour someone in this country, from the battlefield to the classroom, and of course, on the stage, and in the old-fashioned decorous language of pomp and heraldry, “services to dance” sounds so reserved for what Matthew Bourne has achieved in the past thirty years, but that is the reason he became one of our latest theatrical knights in 2016’s New Year Honours list.
Probably best known for the 1995 all-male Swan Lake, with his own company Adventures in Motion Pictures, he has also been the choreographer behind some of the biggest hits of the West End stage, including hit productions of Oliver, My Fair Lady, and the recently revived Mary Poppins. His production of Sleeping Beauty began life in 2012, and this tour started at the end of last year. My knowledge of the story is mainly from pantomime and Ladybird, having never seen the Disney film, but with Bourne in charge the narrative is always clear and strong, and we are never far from the action.
There is a Gothic feel to the whole show, and some wonderful use of theatrical technique as well as the more traditional ballet. The baby Aurora is portrayed by a beautifully reactive puppet, something that Kneehigh or Complicite might do. Once Aurora has grown up, she falls for the amusing but devoted gamekeeper Leo, played by Chris Trenfield, but is trapped by Caradoc, evil son of the equally evil Carabosse, the bad fairy who puts her under her famous curse. Both evil mother and son are played by Adam Maskell, who seems to tower over his prey. Trenfield and Maskell both show incredible physical strength and wonderfully sensitive acting, as does Ashley Shaw as Aurora; some of her best dancing is whilst asleep, gracefully floating through the air when being carried by others, and almost moving in slow motion. It is hard to believe that someone can run across a whole stage, launch themselves into the air, and be effortlessly caught and rotated with such grace and deftness that they could be as light as a doll.
The set is like something from a story book, with huge draping curtains, gigantic windows, a massive moon, a forest of real trees, and highly accurate costumes, fairies in exactly what we would expect from any story book, Victorian and then Edwardian dress for the court, including plenty of facial hair for the gentlemen which disappears in the interval, and modern dress for the second half, including hoodies. What a clever idea to set the first part of the story just over a century ago, so that after her hundred-year sleep Aurora is awoken just a few years ago, and the final scene starts with a very camp ball, set in a mysterious world of red and black, with diamonte crystal wing outlines for the backs of the fairies and a mass dance-off between them all, before Leo and his fairy friend arrive to save Aurora and give us all the happy ending that every fairy tale needs.
I know none of the correct language to describe dance, but I do know what works for me in the theatre, and that is anything that connects on a subliminal level, almost subcutaneous, and connects at an almost spiritual level, and this is one of those experiences. Without uttering a single word these amazing dancers are able to convey emotions and subtlety that is beyond many traditional actors. The dance seemed to be part traditional ballet, part modern dance, and I am pleased that I do not know enough about ballet to try and separate the two genres, but from my South Bank Show gleaned knowledge, I would best describe the style as Ashton meets Fosse. The effect is magical, and adds to the heightened sense of awareness and emotion that the lack of words brings.
One mild disappointment is that the music is recorded, and although it is played back at high level through a decent sound system, it is a shame not to see the musicians, although the the whole score was recorded specially, exquisitely played, and there are some wonderful solos on violin, viola, cello and oboe. The consolation of a recorded soundtrack is that so many more people can see such productions, as it would not be economical to tour with an orchestra. so I urge you to seek this show out and see it.