Arts: Edinburgh: The kiss of death

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The Independent Culture
THERE IS no "once upon a time" about Mats Ek's retelling of The Sleeping Beauty. This is more or less here and now, with a Scandinavian queen and king whose lifestyle is modest: a couple so loving that we see Princess Aurora conceived and born. The fairy godmothers double as nurses for the birth, with Carabosse as the doctor whom nobody likes. Nobody, that is, but Aurora, who grows into a thoroughly rebellious teenager, whose early discovery of sex and drugs brings her parents to an early grave.

Hers is no long enchanted sleep; she is just chemically spaced out in blissful rapture with Carabosse.

So Prince Desire is not exactly the wished-for rescuer. In fact he arrives suddenly and angrily from the audience, shouting: "You have gone too far" (a phrase Ek himself must often have heard). He sees Carabosse as a "filthy foreigner" and finds that sufficient reason to kill him, ironically yelling "murderer!" as he empties his guns into the poor chap.

How do you get a happy ending from that, especially with no good fairy to fix it? Easy. Aurora, herself recovering from addiction, reforms her new admirer and marries him, before giving birth to Carabosse's child. Initially shocked, Desire and Aurora decide to give the child their love, although what will happen in its teens remains to be seen.

To fit his story, Ek has to adapt Tchaikovsky's music: omitting here, repeating there, changing the order especially in the second half, or reallocating pieces to different characters. But he respects the score, catching sometimes unexpected moods in it, and he crafts his dances to it as carefully as Petipa did his classical ones in the original ballet. But Tchaikovsky's passages of pomp and ceremony have to be treated more intimately, even comically.

Generally, the story is boldly and directly told and the characterisation is precise. Asa Lundvik Gustafson, an astonishingly natural Aurora, and Josef Tran as her greasy but irresistible Carabosse head a small, hard- working and extremely able cast. These Cullberg Ballet dancers look born to display Ek's distinctive choreography with its mixture of commonplace or intricately involved movement, comedy and drama.

What Ek achieves is to make us look at the old story afresh from a different angle. Those who know the traditional ballet best will see more collusions, but (like his Giselle) Ek's version is equally accessible to newcomers. It needs no prior knowledge and it speaks directly to anyone with eyes to see.

John Percival