You know it’s going to be different the moment the recorded music begins and words appear on the frontispiece setting the story. Among the recognised musical strains can be heard the cry of a baby, and it is this baby who revolutionises Matthew Bourne’s new vision of the iconic Russian classical ballet masterpiece Sleeping Beauty.

Hannah Vassallo as Aurora in Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty © Simon Annand
Hannah Vassallo as Aurora in Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty
© Simon Annand

With this work, Bourne completes his trilogy of Tchaikovsky ballet works – he made his revolutionary and highly acclaimed male Swan Lake in 1995, followed seven years later by a new version of his wacky Nutcracker! set in a children’s orphanage. Now in celebration of his company’s 25-year anniversary, he has turned his hand to the hardest ballet of the lot – the one that has countless divertissements and usually lasts over three hours. This 2012 version finishes in just two.

Right at the beginning we learn that the fabled evil fairy Carabosse actually possessed a heart, as it was she who granted the King and Queen’s wish for a child. However, her anger is stirred by not receiving any gratitude for her action, and she vows to punish them. Unlike the traditional baby, who is carried on wearing full christening regalia and laid in its draped crib for adoring admirers to coo over, this child is a life-like puppet, first seen crawling everywhere, escaping its flapping nurses, then climbing curtains. When visited by the nocturnal fairies, it sits up in its bed and claps its little hands with a big smile on its face. It’s obvious that this royal offspring is not going to be the demure, filigree figurine depicted in the conventional ballet – no, this Aurora will be a tomboy running bare-footed with the gamekeeper around the Downton Abbey-like grounds of the palace.

If the reception of the Wednesday night audience was anything to go by, this Gothic fairy tale looks like another winner for Bourne’s company, despite a few initial flaws which no doubt will be ironed out. It offers new facets to the age-old scenario, which will delight people of all ages, many of whom probably would not sit out the full-length classical version. It is fast-paced, and full of humorous touches (I loved it when the servant kicked the wind-up gramophone to hasten on the tremolo strains of a violin that normally introduces one of Aurora’s great ballet solos). And it is visually striking with costumes and sets by Lez Brotherston, Bourne’s usual collaborator. The costumes range from shredded ostrich-shaped puffy tutus for the fairies to garish bright red disco outfits for Aurora’s wedding, for, as the writing on the front curtain tells us, the time range is from 1890 (the date of the original production) to 1911 (Aurora’s 21st birthday), and it finishes another hundred years after the fatal prick of the finger, bringing it up to today – or “yesterday”, as the script tells us.

Brotherston’s magical sets first show the austere palace interior where fairies come and go on travelators, giving the impression of weightlessness. Then there is the “anyone for tennis?” party for Aurora’s coming of age in front of a manicured lawn. In the “Vision” scene, he offers a huge full moon lying low amongst lit trees, and the wedding is held in a dark nightclub atmosphere.

Bourne states that he was always disappointed at the lack of romance in the ballet scenario – girl falls asleep for a hundred years, prince finds her, kisses her and hey presto, they get married. But how, he determined, could there be romance? He solves this in a truly modern way – and one that will be approved of by all vampire-loving people. He gets Count Lilac – the male equivalent to the Lilac Fairy – to bite young Leo, Aurora’s childhood sweetheart, in the neck to give him eternal life and thus be around to awaken her from her slumber. And Bourne adds another sinister touch. His Carabosse has a son, Caradoc, who determines to avenge his mother’s demise by killing Aurora himself, and when unable to wake her with his kiss, he lets Leo kiss her and then locks him up. Now all is set for a bizarre wedding with a reluctant bride and an intended fatal ending.

While one could quibble at some repetitive choreography, the company looks terrific in commitment, vitality and performance. Hannah Vassallo and Dominic North are delightful as the young lovers. Hannah makes a charming impetuous princess and dances with a sense of free abandonment, offering beautiful shapings to her line. Dominic is a charismatic young lad with a creamy seamless style. while demonstrating tidy, unpretentious technique. In the dual role of Carabosse and Caradoc, Adam Maskell has plenty of opportunities for powerful acting. His bad fairy is more of a pantomime dame, buxom and unyielding in demeanour, while Caradoc is pure evil. Liam Mower is excellent as Count Lilac, commanding the stage and dancing with authority. His strong technique shows a grace that makes his actions otherworldly, so, after all his good deeds, everyone was startled to see his fangs bite into Leo.

Obviously the purist will be dismayed at some of the liberties taken with such a beloved work of art. Not only has Tchaikovsky’s music been vigorously edited, but sublime ballet passages have been changed, such as the famed Rose Adagio, which no longer demonstrates the rarefied technique of the ballerina as she poses and balances with her four cavaliers. Instead, to the music, Aurora and Leo scamper around the palace garden in an, albeit romantic, danced version of kiss-chase. But no one can fail to be entertained by the evening – it’s jolly good fun!

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