A few weeks ago, Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance ended its tour in Los Angeles, California. Much has been made of the way the well-known story was changed, but what was really striking was that the ballet actually felt like the natural collision of two of the biggest trends of the last decade: vampires and re-imagined fairy tales.
Let's get this out of the way at the beginning: this thing was beautiful. The sets and costumes were sumptuous and magnificently detailed. If, like me, dance isn't your strongest knowledge set, a show this gorgeous will carry you through on the visuals alone.
The plot isn't exactly Sleeping Beauty as either Disney or the original ballet has done it. First, the story's beginning is moved forward to 1890, with Aurora's sleep beginning in 1911. So her one-hundred-year sleep doesn't end in the past, but just a few years ago. Second, the spindle's been replaced with the prick of a rose's thorn. Third, instead of being woken by a random prince, Aurora's suitor is a hunter named Leo. The two of them were in love before the curse took hold of her, so he's pretty much just waiting it out.
And then there are the vampires. Think about what you know about the story of Sleeping Beauty, and search and replace "fairy" with "vampire." Where the original ballet used Aurora as a sort of proxy battle between the good Lilac Fairy and the evil Carabosse, this one does that with the good Count Lilac and the evil Caradoc (son of Carabosse, who dies offstage after cursing Aurora. Mother and son are played by the same person). And they're vampires.
The prelude is an interminable sequence with a creepy baby puppet Aurora gamboling all over the place, followed by a great sequence with the good vampires bestowing their gifts on Aurora and Carabosse cursing the child. Act 1 establishes Aurora as a princess unhappy with rigid formality and Leo as her love interest. And then Caradoc shows up at her birthday party, and he's pretty much every "evil seductive vampire" trope available. He gives a rose to Aurora, and she slips into her 100-year sleep. This is obviously upsetting to Leo, and also to Count Lilac, who steps in to help.
By turning Leo into a vampire, too.
I'd almost recommend not knowing that the good fairies are also vampire going in, because any vampire subtext becomes text right before intermission, when Count Lilac turns Leo into a vampire. My audience burst into laughter when the teeth came out. And when you come back from intermission, it's present day, and Leo the vampire's been camped outside of Aurora's castle this entire time.
Leo battles through the thicket to get to the castle. Meanwhile, Caradoc's been "guarding" Aurora's sleeping form, and he's become enamored with her. So he lets Leo wake her, and then he leaves with the wakened Aurora to make her his bride. So Count Lilac and Leo infiltrate Caradoc's vampire rave to get her back. They do, and Vampire Leo, Vampire Aurora, and their new vampire baby live happily ever after.
Modern day vampire rave scene set to Tchaikovsky? Check that off the bucket list.
These days, dance performances like this don't drive pop culture. And this whole thing really felt like pop culture driving dance. Like, if you went to see this, and then watched Once Upon a Time/Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters/Snow White and the Huntsman and NBC's Dracula/True Blood/Twilight, this ballet would fit right in. It's got a lot of the hallmarks of the recent glut of fairy tale re-imaginings and vampire tales, but set to Tchaikovsky.
From the "new" fairy tale movement, this ballet's tried to give its princess more personality and agency. It's also done away with the idea of a random prince happening to be her true love, and instead made it someone she already loves. Leo's identity as a hunter also brings a tinge of a class divide into it. Caradoc's a more interesting villain, since he's driven by his desire to complete his mother's revenge. But in the process, he develops an unhealthy obsession with Aurora. These days, it's all about the nuanced villain. And then there's the bringing it into the present day. All these little modern-y touches give the story some needed depth.
Which is generally the idea behind the "re-imagined fairy tale," making the thing work better for modern tastes and psychology. Of the two trends this ballet embodies, it embodies this one better.
On the one hand, it's less successful in making vampires mesh with this world. It really feels like a gimmick, one which is nice to look at and shocks laughter out of the audience, but a gimmick. Part of it's that the story is still Sleeping Beauty, so the vampires have to do the things that the fairies in the story do. They have to place curses and bestow magic gifts, which aren't really vampire things. Caradoc's got a love of black, red, and sex which is very "Halloween Vampire" of him. But beyond that, and their fangs, the vampires in the ballet aren't that vampire-like. On the other hand, that's actually completely fitting with the latest round of vampire-mania.
Vampires have been constantly reinterpreted. Caradoc and Jonathan Rhys Meyers' Dracula could totally cousins, as bonkers as their new settings and plots are to the classic idea. The evil vampires in the ballet and Twilight's Volturi appear to be shopping at the same stores. And a schism between vampire factions? Good and bad? Yeah, that's in Twilight, True Blood, and The Originals, just to name a few.
These ones have wings and black lines across their eyes. Why? Because.
While the changed plot points work better than the inclusion of vampires, Caradoc and Count Lilac are by far the best characters. Aurora and Leo are fine (Aurora, in particular, is very expressive), but there's something way more interesting about Caradoc and Lilac. Caradoc, as discussed above, has complex motivations. Meanwhile, Lilac moves through the whole thing like a chessmaster. He basically maneuvers everyone into the right place for him to take out Caradoc. Sleeping Beauty as a proxy vampire war is actually very interesting, and the two main vampires are great.
These kinds of performances are more experiences than they are anything else. It's the moment where pop culture trends grow too big to not eventually collide, and run out of media to take over. I, for one, look forward to seeing the superhero/zombie version of La Traviata that'll result when those two trends finally slam into each other.
Pictures from the official site for Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance.