As the culture becomes increasingly virtual so does the fairy tale. Where once it was gently dressed in the pillowy pastels of Disney animation, it is now a statement on steroids. At the movies, using digital technology to create nightmare visions that morph and mutate with stunning photographic realism, film directors have brought gothic horror and Tolkien-esque apocalypse into the bedtime fictions of yore. The intimate story structures in which the queen’s curse or the witch’s prophecy once dwelled—cozy, written “rooms” where sexual awakening and the family romance safely played out—have blown up into broad-canvas political or Promethean quests. There’s not much fairy in the tale.
Onstage, however, technology is still of the cranks and pulleys variety (though the cranks and pulleys are today computerized) and narrative still pours from human bodies. Strange to think that centuries before the invention of film, the stage was the place for grand and unearthly spectacle. Classical dance in particular was spinning out dreamscapes and visions—fires, oceans, earthquakes, spouting fountains, growing gardens, and The Great Beyond. The bill was footed by kings and czars. When the ballerina rose up on to pointe, which happened definitively in 1832 with the premiere of La Sylphide, the art form went astral, elevated forevermore to a uniquely metaphysical plane.
No one expects the fairy stories of dance to compete with the eye-popping imagery of recent movies like Snow White & the Huntsman—Hieronymus Bosch reflected in a black pearl—or a 3D cinematic fantasy like Avatar, its plot turning on a futuristic technology that allows the physical to be absorbed into the virtual, creating a palpable existence in between. At the same time, one can’t assume that audiences leave such comparisons at the door. There’s many a ballet production where the special effects just aren’t special enough. To rephrase Emily Dickinson: The eye wants what it wants—or else it does not care.
In a work like The Sleeping Beauty, for example, the arrival of the fairies in the prologue should be winged, gossamer, ineffable in some way. Otherwise, why bother? American Ballet Theatre’s 2007 production—imperfect yes, but so viciously attacked it was as if critics were channeling Cruella de Vil—actually did bring the fairies on aerially: Male consorts entered holding each one aloft, as if she’d been caught in mid-air. Yet in countless productions the fairies walk in on good old bipedal feet. The late critic David Daniel once told me of a long-ago Sleeping Beauty—a Royal Ballet production, I believe—in which the fairies flitted down to earth along a shaft of light, the ramp beneath them invisible in the surrounding darkness. This vision stays with me, even though I never saw it.
In November, a new production of The Sleeping Beauty came to New York, the work of Matthew Bourne, the British choreographer whose Swan Lake of 1995 was an international sensation. Bourne, with his company New Adventures, is famous for a brand of dance-theater that tells stories imaginatively and accessibly. From time to time this includes the radical re-thinking of classical ballets. There are similarities between Bourne and the American choreographer Mark Morris, who also does the radical rethink, and in Bourne’s Swan Lake the corps of swans—danced provocatively by men, not women—move in a modern-dance vernacular, unadorned and a little doughy, that makes one think of Morris. Of the two men, Morris is more of a purist. And yet his forays into narrative feel abstract and thin, his revisions archly above the story or campily below it. Bourne’s vision is more directorial and multi-dimensional, and this gives him greater dexterity. He uses dance to get the whole stage moving, from sets to segues to the score (which he does not treat as sacrosanct but cuts and pastes as needed). You could say he reanimates his material, for Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance is stunningly alive and awake.
Those who come to this Beauty looking for pointe shoes and tutus may not even notice their absence. The house lights dim and amid thunder and lightning the jagged birth-cry of a baby cuts across Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s overture. Onstage, in blackest silhouette, the looming shape of a gowned and winged woman lifts a newborn to the sky. The program tells us that the year is 1890 (when The Sleeping Beauty premiered) and on a scrim we read of a barren royal couple and their longing for a child; then of the dark fairy Carabosse, who brings them one; and then . . . “The king forgot to show his gratitude.” The tale we all know is set in motion: the christening in which the good fairies bestow their gifts and the dark fairy casts her spell; the coming of age, pricked finger, and one-hundred-year sleep; the kiss from a prince and the marriage that follows.
Bourne has shifted the emphasis, however, opening up the prologue (christening scene) that is traditionally a formal introduction of characters, and instead using this time to acquaint us with Princess Aurora as a baby. She is a puppet with saucer eyes, her movements manipulated by black-clad puppeteers. Beguiling, she crawls fearlessly, climbing the curtains like a cat and spooking the servants. Her parents are besotted with her, but we see that she is something of a changeling, a daughter more akin to the spirits who swoop in to give her gifts of temperament, passion, and plenty. The Apollonian sun is the patron star of most Auroras but this one is chaperoned by a luminous moon of white light, hence the production’s subtitle “A Gothic Romance.”
And so Aurora’s guardian spirits are no longer girls in tulle, with tiny net wings at the small of the back. They are male and female, dressed in the Baroque clothing of Charles Perrault’s French court (which means they’ve existed for centuries) and graced with large wings like those of Renaissance angels or eagles, full-feathered and powerfully springing from between the shoulder blades. These feral fairies—a darkness around their eyes like the masks of raccoons, their feet bare—are led not by the Lilac Fairy but by Count Lilac, a beautiful man with a raven’s mane. They arrive gliding (on a hidden conveyor belt), candles in hand, and their dancing, though balletic, is inflected with modern weight à la Paul Taylor and notes of unsocialized kookiness. We watch the baby Aurora watching them, and the charm of it, this strange amoral view, is wonderful.
The white moon that illuminates the tale. The symbolic rose—now red with ardor, now black with doom. The wings, so creaturely and so Freudian, pumped with eros. And evil Carabosse, corseted in a garnet gown, a living lethal hourglass. All this imagery is pulled into Bourne’s choreographic swirls and spirals, into groupings that have a Laocoön-like concentration and vigor, so much so that the poetic synthesis in Act One becomes marvelously organic, as if the fairies have become both the trees in a forest and the living things in the trees. This act, like the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz, carries you away. We are set down twenty-one years later, in 1911, in Act Two. Aurora has come of age and, still a wild child, she doesn’t want to put on her shoes. Moreover, she loves Leo, the royal gamekeeper, who teases her in her bedroom as she prepares for the party—an ivory-linen idyll straight out of “Downton Abbey”—in which she must choose an aristocratic husband. How will it end?
Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published in 1897, just seven years after the St. Petersburg premiere of the Tchaikovsky–Petipa masterpiece The Sleeping Beauty. While pushing into deeper shadows, the gothic spin Bourne brings to their Imperial-Russian take on a Gallic tale does not unbalance the ballet. After all, Tchaikovsky’s earlier Swan Lake floats comfortably in the realm of the gothic: Odette’s famous theme was used under the opening credits of both Dracula (1931, Bela Lugosi) and The Mummy (1932, Boris Karloff). With this Beauty, Bourne has keyed into dynamics that are currently at play in the culture. Stirring beneath its surface is the fantasy-romance Twilight series, the immensely popular books and movies in which a mortal girl named Bella Swan loves and marries a soulful vampire boy (he drinks blood, but not the blood of humans). The four titles in that series—Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn—could actually be the titles of this Beauty’s four acts. One detects, as well, another reference to a recent novel, also made into a movie, Ian McEwan’s Atonement. In McEwan’s book, there is no happy ending for the young woman of wealth who falls in love with the son of a servant. But Bourne’s Count Lilac, using his supernatural bite to recruit a new immortal, makes it possible for Leo to find his sleeping soulmate, Aurora, in the next millennium, and to rescue her from Caradoc, the glamorous son of Carabosse, who would make her queen of his dark domain.
Acts Three and Four, the Awakening and the Wedding, take place 100 years later—which means now. Aurora is almost lost to a satanic dagger in a den of decadence. And yet the happy ending, in bed under the covers, is surprisingly innocent and well-earned. It’s not easy to bring these “rethinks” to coherent completion. They almost never work. And there are moments in this second half that are underpowered when compared with the first, having less visual weight and a more tenuous clarity. It doesn’t matter. The beauty of this Beauty is the first half, Acts One and Two, where Bourne creates a theatrical vortex that pulls complex contemporary longings and obsessions into imagery of intimate and luxurious physicality. It isn’t gossamer and doesn’t mean to be. It is a fairy tale given the muscularity of myth. Sculpted, night-blooming, breathing—all in a cozy room just over the footlights.