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Sleeping Beauty Awakens in China
British choreographer brings his hit ballet to Beijing for the first time
By Ji Jing | NO. 34 AUGUST 25, 2016


Aurora played by Ashley Shaw in Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty (JOHAN PERSSON) 

Matthew Bourne, a renowned British choreographer and director, will bring his ballet Sleeping Beauty: a Gothic Romance to the Tianqiao Performing Arts Center in Beijing in early September. Having displayed his work only once before in China--in Shanghai in 2014 during his international Swan Lake tour--Bourne will debut his work in the capital.

"We are very happy to be invited to perform in China. It's exciting for us to come somewhere new. It's exciting that China has now opened up for different kinds of theaters to come and be seen here," Bourne told Beijing Review.

Sleeping Beauty, originally a fairy tale by French writer Charles Perrault in the late 17th century, centers on Aurora, a princess cursed into a lengthy slumber by an evil fairy. One hundred years later, she is awoken by the kiss of a prince, who upon first sight, falls in love with the princess.

The story was first produced as a ballet adaptation by Russian composer Tchaikovsky (1840-93) and French choreographer Marius Petipa (1818-1910) in 1890. Bourne's version, premiered in 2012, marks the final piece in his trilogy of Tchaikovsky ballets, following Nutcracker! and Swan Lake in 1992 and 1995, respectively.

When consulted on which work he considers to be his greatest achievement to date, Bourne picks Sleeping Beauty. "It's a most recent piece. I do think it works as a piece of dance, a story, and an alternative way of telling the story through this incredible music," he told Beijing Review.


Stage photo of Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty (JOHAN PERSSON) 

New twists

Bourne has added Gothic elements into his adaptation, exemplified by the presence of vampires. When asked why he chose such a theme, the choreographer explained, "The musical was written in 1890, and that's the height of the Gothic movement and literature."

According to Bourne, fairy tales are often macabre, and he is making them the way they really are. "The original version of Sleeping Beauty, for example, is very dark, very explicit sexually, and very violent," said Bourne. Though, despite its dark elements, he reasoned that it's still a romantic love story.

Based on the ballet adaptation that has run through to the present day, the director wove new twists into his version, adding layers of complexity and fascination.

Bourne is not convinced by the original's romance, in which the prince belatedly shows up, kisses the princess and falls in love. "I think it was a bad love story. I wanted a story that kept the drama going right through to the end," he said.

To thicken the plot, he created new characters. For instance, Caradoc, the wicked fairy's son and a suitor to Aurora, and Leo, a gardener and the princess' childhood sweetheart.

Princess Aurora was simply a motionless baby in a cot in the first act of the original ballet. Bourne transforms her into a rebellious persona in his version. "I just thought she's the lead character. She needs to have a personality. We need to get to know her a bit," he explained.

"I want her to be a bit wild and unruly. I want her to cry a lot, so that we get a sense of who this girl is. It's made clear she's not really the daughter of the king and queen. She could be a stolen child, a gypsy child," he added.

Another notable change is substituting Aurora's prince with a more lowly born gardener, whom the princess already knows. "I want there to be a love story across time. I want her to be already in love with somebody, who then needs to save her and try to find her in the future. I think that's a nice theme," Bourne said.

The art of dance

Although the storyline is of chief importance, dance sequences are also integral to his shows. Various dance styles, ranging from classical ballet to more gestural and edgy movements of the present day, are incorporated to reflect the characteristics of different time periods.

Fifty-six-year-old Bourne embarked on his dancing career at the age of 22. He studied dance theater and choreography at the London-based Laban Centre (now Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance), graduating in 1985.

"I honed in on dance because I became quite self-conscious in my teenage years and didn't like speaking very much. So I expressed myself more through movement," he said.

Over the past three decades, Bourne, a five-time Olivier and two-time Tony award winner, has created and directed dance for musicals, opera, theater, and films.

He is renowned for his unconventional approach to adapting classical works. For instance, he introduced male swans to his version of Swan Lake. "I like playing around with gender, if it's relevant. Sometimes it really works. It's quite interesting," he said.

Additionally, Bourne is audience-conscious, being prepared to change his work according to audience responses. In the instant world of social networking and smart phones, theater faces a challenge to maintain its appeal.

The director reminisces of the days before TV, when cinema was a major form of entertainment. He believes engaging youth is critical to keep theater alive. "The important thing is that there's a young audience becoming interested in theater. If there isn't, the art form just dies out," he lamented.

Thankfully, he is able to keep his theater company afloat primarily through ticket sales, though government funding and private investors play a part. However, if sales drop off, financial difficulties could force the company to disappear.

 Matthew Bourne


Matthew Bourne was born in 1960. He created a number of award-winning works, including Spitfire (1988), Nutcracker! (1992), Swan Lake (1995) and Cinderella (1997), as artistic director of his first company, Adventures in Motion Pictures, from 1987 to 2002.

He co-founded theater company New Adventures in 2002. Since then, he has produced new works such as Edward Scissorhands (2005), Dorian Gray (2008) and Sleeping Beauty (2012).

In 2008, he established Re:Bourne, the charitable arm of New Adventures and an important mechanism for finding and nurturing the next generation of dancers, choreographers and audiences. In 2010, he created the New Adventures Choreographer Award to enhance opportunities and showcase the talents of emerging choreographers.

He received a knighthood for services to dance from the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace in May and was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award, one of the most coveted accolades in the world of dance, in recognition of his outstanding services to the art of ballet, in June.


Copyedited by Dominic James Madar  

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