Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Making Old Ballets New: Puppets, Vampires, and Fates

Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Simon Annand
Why do we need story ballets, if we do? If Tchaikovsky/Petipa's The Sleeping Beauty, now over a century old, is about the life of ballet itself, how does that speak to ballet and stories today? Why do we return to this tale, and to other "princess" ballets, including Cinderella, both in New York this fall?

Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance, at City Center through November 3, makes a strong case for modern relevance. So much of the original's magic has been stated simply as givens: Carabosse's overreaction at being overlooked on a party invitation list, future telling, and a variety of spells. Now, we in the 21st century know that's all a bunch of hooey, am I right? But vampires! That's something we can all get behind and believe without impunity.

Of course, there are still spells and magic in Bourne's version, which seems to exists more or less owing to the enduring strength of Tchaikovsky's score. But the added twist of vampires and their knack for eternal life certainly simplifies some plot gaps. Bourne is not alone in being frustrated that Aurora has not traditionally met her prince until the last half of the ballet, even if it did distinguish Aurora as among the most challenging and independent roles for a ballerina. Here, she meets her guy Leo (the Royal Gamekeeper, complete with a pair of coneys) early on, setting up a relationship for which she can yearn. Bourne neatly gives Leo a fighting chance with a little eternity on his side. As Aurora, Ashley Shaw is impetuous and charming, and Dominic North, as Leo, lanky and wide-eyed.

Does the vampire angle make it relevant? The same as hoodies and selfies, also prominent in Bourne's version, to an extent, as pop culture timestamps. No doubt the fanged legend is having a moment, despite being centuries old. Most importantly, aside from the score, Lez Brotherston's fantastic sets and costumes bring this ballet to vivid life. This longtime collaborator of Bourne's transforms the somewhat limited City Center stage into an enchanting diorama. Sumptuous bronze curtains drape over the primary opening—Aurora's bedroom window—which offers both entrance and escape. Another terrific idea was to make baby Aurora a puppet, letting her terrorize her guardians and react to the action, rather than lie in a bassinet like a loaf of bread.

Dancers ride on conveyer belts upstage (a trick that begs, why has no one done that before?). Leafless birch trees peppered with lanterns evoke a spartan wilderness. A gigantic full moon shadows Aurora like a guardian spirit. An Edwardian tea party feels straight out of Seurat's atelier. A modern-day nightclub lit by stingingly bright cobalt and red lighting is convincingly claustrophobic and sweat-inducing. Brotherston's fantastic feather-skirted costumes flow and flounce whimsically. And Bourne's bold movement is a latter-day relative of ballet, done in soft or street shoes, or even barefoot. It's accessible, yet still respectful of its source. Of all choreographers working today, Bourne has most successfully built a bridge between the classics and what the public wants. Don't be surprised if this turns up on Broadway.

Maria Kochetkova as Cinderella, with her back-up boys, the Fates. Photo: Erik Tomasson
Meanwhile, Christopher Wheeldon's version of Cinderella was at the Koch Theater, winding up San Francisco Ballet's two-week run. Besides his own reliable facility with the ballet idiom and an accomplished company, Wheeldon has the ace cards of the Prokofiev score, which has moments of brilliance amid spans of melodic milquetoast, and the talents of the trickster puppeteer Basil Twist, who crafted the two most memorable scenes. In one, dancers twirl what appear to be parasols, others wear horse heads, and Cinderella first appears in her signature golden ball gown, which sports a parachute train. In a brief, magical moment, they all assemble to form her pumpkin carriage, train billowing like a sail. In the second, a huge tree's bowers waft up and down, and receive projections of rippling, somewhat sinister leaves, or transform hues to mark the seasons.

Like Bourne, Wheeldon tweaked the original story, morphing the fairy godmother into four male Fates, giving the prince a best friend who conspires with him on pranks, and making Cinderella an orphan taken in by a family, including one sympathetic daughter who is bullied by her older sister. I saw Francine Chung and Carlos Quenedit in the lead roles, both perfectly capable in several romantic duets, if lacking in the intangibles that can transport such characters beyond us mortals. Chung has a sweet presence that connotes humility as well as a burgeoning confidence, and Quenedit a rakish flair.

The four Fates are Cinderella's regular companions and protectors; one lifts her in a draping arch as another then secures her by a leg, like a flag on a pole; she repeatedly rises and falls thusly. It's a comforting device, even if it softens the idea that Cinderella is completely alone in the world before meeting her prince. Wheeldon has a way with creating fluid, undulating, horizontal movements, and crafting subtly inventive partnering maneuvers. Another twist is the presence of several Spirits, essentially the seasons given metaphorical traits: Lightness, Generosity, Mystery, Fluidity. It's a lot to package neatly, and despite the garishness of many of Julian Crouch's costumes, and the relative flatness of many of the sets, leaves some lasting impressions.

It seems as though these particular story ballets persist in no small part because of their scores, even if both are not either composers' best. One modern tack is to string together bits of classical music, or perhaps pop standards, most likely destined for Broadway. But at a time when there's a scarcity of support for new symphonic music, let alone commissions for full-length ballet productions, choreographers are revisiting the romantic scores again and again, looking for ways to make them relevant. The puppetry in both supplies moments of magic, and Bourne comes closest.

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