Choreographer Matthew Bourne has a reputation for audaciousness that precedes him. In America, the British choreographer is most well known for his production of Swan Lake. First staged at Sadler's Wells theatre in London in 1995, the production toured to Broadway in 1998, where audiences were shocked by Bourne's recasting of the traditional female corps de ballet, the swans, with an all-male ensemble.
This recasting of one of ballet's most iconic productions is partly what's driven non-traditional audiences to his shows -- audiences looking for something fresh and new and finding it, in all places, in ballet. The audience at the opening night of Bourne's limited run of Sleeping Beauty at the Ahmanson was certainly abuzz with excitement, and it was Bourne's stunning aesthetic, his resplendently bold choreography and his commitment to story and character that brought the audience to their feet.
The third of Matthew Bourne's Tchaikovsky-composed ballet trio (the first and second being Nutcracker and Swan Lake), Sleeping Beauty has also been reworked in bold and surprising ways. The original Sleeping Beauty was staged in the late 19th century by choreographer Marius Petipa of France, also the original choreographer of Swan Lake. In Petipa's Sleeping Beauty the Lilac Fairy is the guiding spirit, saving Aurora from Carabosse, the wicked fairy. In Bourne's version, the Lilac Fairy has been recast as Count Lilac, danced by a man (Liam Mower), as has Carabosse (danced in Thursday's performance by the commanding Adam Maskell).
The gender recasting evens out the ratio of men to women, whereas the original, as in most traditional ballet, showcases primarily the talents of female dancers. For the female dancers in Bourne's aptly named New Adventures Dance Company, sharing the spotlight with men provides an exciting challenge. "These men are strong, they're muscular, and they command the stage, so when we come on, we know that we have to do the same," says Katie Lowenhoff, who plays Miss Maddox and the fairy Hibernia in Sleeping Beauty.
The male and female dancers in Sleeping Beauty are certainly on even ground. The duets between Aurora (performed by Hannah Vassallo), and her suitor Leo (performed by Dominic North), showcase their abilities equally, as they soar effortlessly into each other's arms, in choreography that is at once clean and complex. The fairies -- three are women, the other three men -- spin and leap and flit and twist in fabulous displays of energy and strength. This is not the ballet of yore, where the male dancer often served as a mere vehicle to parade a ballerina, poised in a statuesque passé, across the stage. In fact, in Bourne's ballet, there are no pointe shoes, those iconic symbols of ballet's traditional gender system. The dancers wear regular shoes that suit their costumes, or dance barefoot. Everyone is literally of equal footing, and ability.
But gender recasting is only one of Bourne's devices to revitalize the classic. He also introduces vampires, and infuses the production with a gothic sensibility, darkening it significantly from Petipa's light and pretty version. The inclusion of vampires serves to create a more cohesive, and believable love story between Aurora and her suitor Leo.
Matthew Bourne's adventurous restaging of one of the classical repertoire's most famous ballets breaths new life into not only the tale itself, but into ballet as a modern and relevant art form. As dancer Danny Reubens, who portrayed Viscount Aubrey in Thursday's performance, says, "Matthew is allowed to be daring. And really, his reworking [of the story] just makes sense."
Sleeping Beauty, directed, choreographed and reimagined by Matthew Bourne, runs through December 1 at the Ahmanson Theatre.
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