The recent première of Alejandro Cerrudo’s Sleeping Beauty in Basel made a brilliant case for reinventing an old and magical tale. Hardly the usual Sleeping Beauty, Spanish choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo diverges from the familiar narrative to portray something more elemental: the conflict between good and evil that we may be subject to in our dreams. He has us follow his heroine Aurora – a girl on her way to womanhood – as she confronts the demons of her own subconscious.

Alejandro Cerrudo © Todd Rosenberg
Alejandro Cerrudo
© Todd Rosenberg
When the ballet begins, she is already asleep, and held aloft mid-stage by indefinable hands. We backtrack to see her among friends, and falling in love. But she is soon confronted to a grotesque version of herself and surrealistic images. One alter ego, for example, is a red-hot Little Red Riding Hood, her wolf a handsome seducer. Making the stage Aurora’s dreamland, Cerrudo also addresses the unaccountable time in which events in her dreams take place.

While such psychological substance brings an entirely new dimension to the ballet, Cerrudo nevertheless retains some of the magical aspects of the Sleeping Beauty story. The demonic Carabosse plagues the heroine, who is the very essence of good and grace. The story’s courtiers are turned into cats and devoted friends, but show no less compassion and playful camaraderie with the principals. And in the final resolution, Aurora is awakened by a kiss from her well-named lover, Désiré.

Currently resident choreographer at Chicago’s renowned Hubbard Strret Dance company, Alejandro Cerrudo’s work has been given accolades for its rare dynamism and fluidity. Rightly so, I would venture, for there was an energy level at work here that shook up the house.

Each one of the principals here, namely, was superb. Ayako Nakano was the quintessential Aurora, slight of build, but extraordinarily powerful in her expression and command of this complex choreography. The only figure on stage dressed all in soft white, she floated like an ethereal transfiguration of grace throughout, even as she mastered intricate, twisting braids of movement. In the love scenes at the beginning and at the end, her affection seemed wholly genuine, and at times sweetly playful, an innocence that was entirely fitting and refreshing.

In the fairy tale, the Prince’s kiss marks the great awakening, and that magical detail was also retained. But here, the two dancers actually 'locked in' to one another, unexpectedly joining mouth-to-mouth. Then, verging on what would seem the impossible − adjoined as they were − they went on to dance a demanding sequence like two exotic creatures in an elaborate mating ritual. It was a pas de deux of the very first order.

As Désiré, Frank Fannar Pedersen nicely framed the ballet. At the very start, his power walk on the moving exercise plate starts at a pedestrian pace but accelerates to a frantic run as he tries to reach his sleeping beauty. Unsuccessful, he dances emphatically afterwards in what seemed a call for affirmation. This same sequence both begins and ends the ballet, making a kind of fitting parenthesis to the drama. My only objection was his costume: a blue business suit felt oddly inappropriate, and its jacket's flaps got in his way.

As the evil magician Carabosse, Jorge Garcia Pérez’s muscular profile and complete command of the space lent the dancer real credibility. His calculated movements affected a pervasive evil, perhaps more dreadful for being so inviting. Even his slick hairdressing was perfect: a tight braid down the back of his head resembled a truncated spinal chord, yet another ominous attribute to this blackest of roles.

The original staging put even the dream landscape of Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus into the shadows. Great panels of padded, mattress-like material lined the wings at first; on their reverse, large and jewel-like mirrors cast distorted reflections of the action much like silver plates might do. But what charged the ballet best − not only for the stunning visuals created, but also through the added audio effect − were the fine-cast metal-chain curtains hanging down and centre stage. Soft lighting dropping slowly over them made something like the shadowy hills and valleys of a Japanese ink wash painting; equally spectacular was the futuristic effect of running a staid object across the curtain left to right. Both Star-Trekian effects made a perfect marriage of reality and illusion.

For accompaniment, and under the direction of conductor Thomas Herzog, the Sinfonieorchester Basel slipped seamlessly among the work of four composers. In addition to excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s original ballet score, works by Sibelius and René Aubry were also quoted. Most compelling for me, however, were the wonderful Philip Glass quotations, whose mesmerizing repetitions gave a baseline to the movement on stage. Further, cellist Antoine Lederlin’s fine solo towards the end of the ballet made as full and sensuous a sound as the instrument can render.

*****