A fairy tale awakening: Sleeping Beauty

Well known for his three ballet scores, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker! and The Sleeping Beauty, Tchaikovsky’s music repertoire is revered internationally. For this reason, explains director and choreographer Matthew Bourne, “I had always found it a daunting thought to try and approach a score that was so associated with the pinnacle of classical ballet form and grandeur”. After visiting Tchaikovsky’s house last spring, however, Bourne was determined to make The Sleeping Beauty his next project.

Bourne was a dancer for 14 years before he became a director, and has since launched his current company, New Adventures. It is with this company that Bourne realised his gothic interpretation of Sleeping Beauty, performing his ballet in Norwich last week.

The performance outlined a contemporary take on the classic fairy tale, and – in true Bourne style – conflated theatre, classical ballet, and dance. The narrative ark traced the story through Victorianism and into the present day as act one was set in 1890, with act four ending in 2012. The time shift worked well with Bourne’s contemporary style, as none of the dancers performed on point, and for the most part, Princess Aurora (Ashley Shaw) danced barefoot, signalling a move away from classical ballet, and towards the postmodern and eclectic style which pervades Bourne’s work.

Director and choreographer Matthew Bourne

The opening of the performance was extremely theatrical, with little from the corps de ballet, and with the cast dressed in full Victorian costumes. The whole adaptation is littered with comedy to juxtapose the serious and solemn aspects of the narrative, and act one humorously portrayed a domestic scene, with housemaids and servants frantically chasing a puppet baby around stage. The comedy permeated the performance, with visual gags illustrated alongside darker connotations of death, sexual corruption, and power.

Perhaps the most unusual element of the performance was the exquisite and exciting set. Designed by Lez Brotherston, the stage was transformed as the story progressed through the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, paying minute attention to details.

The layering of the stage, for example, was perfectly executed, with veiled curtains and projections creating varying depths, and lightness and darkness. Unusually, the stage was not entirely flat, and two conveyor belts were positioned upon an incline, allowing the magnificent fairies to glide motionlessly across the stage one moment, and energetically against the movement of the conveyor belt the next.

The performance sensuously combined Tchaikovsky’s infamous ballet score with a modern energy. The costumes were breath taking, and the choreography flawless, with the staccato movements of the fairies contrasted to classical elegance of the prima throughout.


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harrietfarnham Harriet is the editor of Arts. Email her at

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May 2022
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