David RobertsProfessor David Roberts, Acting Executive Dean of the Faculty of Performance, Media and English at Birmingham City University, praises the world premiere of Matthew Bourne’s latest re-imagining of a ballet classic.

One of my few and, it has to be said, less happy experiences of going to the ballet was a trip to see Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. I’ve always loved the music, for all its schmaltz, and there’s no more schmaltzy waltz than the one in this piece; you could go on humming it for hours, and I do. But there was something about the Siberian National Ballet’s version at the Great Malvern theatre a few years ago that killed the whole thing dead.

Maybe it was having an increasingly disgruntled teenage daughter next to me who was struggling to follow what was going on. Mostly, though, it was the feeling that I was looking at some elaborate Victorian toy that, however charming, meant almost nothing. This was museum theatre, a set of gestures lovingly preserved decades after their meaning had expired: a kind of sleeping beauty, in fact. At the time I was writing a piece about sleeping women in Shakespeare and I was aching to partake of the great moments in the story: when Aurora takes the fateful rose, when she’s awakened by her young visitor (in early versions of the story the visiting prince dispenses with a kiss and rapes her). Instead, the whole thing died, like a disappointing Christmas present: beautifully wrapped but empty of value.

I didn’t quite know what to expect of Matthew Bourne’s treatment, on last week at the Birmingham Hippodrome. I’d read reviews of his work and taken in ten seconds of his radical Swan Lake around the fringes of Billy Elliot. Nothing prepared me for the rush of excitement at this Sleeping Beauty. It was more music drama than ballet: no indulgence in routines for their own sake, no technical showing off, just a telling of the story through intense, funny, grand, intimate gesture and movement. I’ve rarely seen a production where music and bodies worked so well together, and the last ten minutes of the first half, in which Aurora succumbs to sleep and is led away into a garden of death behind giant iron gates, will haunt me forever. I gasped out loud. My scalp prickles to recall it.

She may have been going to sleep for a hundred years, but I sensed something different happening. I’m sure there are connoisseurs of the pas-de-deux who think Matthew Bourne raped poor Aurora with this extraordinary, post-Twilight version. For me, it was the tenderest, most brilliant kiss of creative imagination that finally woke Beauty up. Hats off to the Bourne supremacy.

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David Roberts

David Roberts

Faculty of Performance, Media and English at Birmingham City University
David Roberts

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