'Sleeping Beauty': Dancing in the dark

Scottish Ballet's new production takes a trip into a scary part of the fairy-tale forest. Zoë Anderson talks to its choreographer, Ashley Page
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The princess on the posters for Scottish Ballet's new Sleeping Beauty could be Snow White, or even a bride of Dracula: bare shoulders, red lips, a hint of barbed wire. This will be a revisionist Beauty. Tchaikovsky's score is still there, as are a few dances from the original Petipa version, but most of the choreography is new. Ashley Page, the company's director and chief choreographer, is again emphasising the dark side of fairy stories.

The Sleeping Beauty is Page's third full-length production for Scottish Ballet. He took over the company in 2002, revitalising it with a mix of classical and contemporary repertory. He also found himself making evening-length story ballets for the first time, starting with The Nutcracker in 2003. "Having never done these things before I came here, I'm now fascinated by them," he says. "It's made me develop in a way I'd never even considered."

Page tends to emphasise conflict and cruelty. That can turn sour; his Cinderella ended with the Ugly Sisters crawling blinded into the night, rejected rather than forgiven a strangely spiteful effect. Page argues that the darkness in his fairy-tale ballets was there anyway. "Often it's glossed over, because ballet audiences have liked things sweetened. Or that's the perceived wisdom. I wanted to go about it differently, but still maintain the element of entertainment."

With this production, he looks at the roots of the story: "Fairy stories look metaphorically at things that happen in real life, at things that are really fundamental." With The Sleeping Beauty, he focuses on the mix of characters, and on the forest that grows up as Aurora sleeps. "The whole thing about the fairy world interacting with the mortal world; it's fascinating. All great fairy stories have some aspect of the forest in them. You go into the forest to lose yourself and to find yourself. It's like therapy."

Page is intrigued by earlier versions of The Sleeping Beauty. "The story goes on beyond the heroine's marriage. Did you know that the Prince's mother is an ogress? She eats children, so he hides the fact that he's married. Then his father goes off to the Crusades, and that, weirdly, is the point he chooses to introduce his children to his mother. Then he goes off and leaves them with her! She digs a pit and fills it with vipers... so there's all that going on." Will he put the viper pit on stage? "No, we go up to the wedding; the last act is the wedding reception."

Page has taken the outline of his ballet from Tchaikovsky's music, while "trying to bring the story a little more to life than it can sometimes be in the traditional version". Take the wedding reception. In the original ballet, choreographed by Petipa in 1890, other fairy-tale characters appear as guests, but Page brings these characters on stage earlier. "A lot of those characters get lost in the forest in their own stories. In our version, the Prince meets them there so that's why they come to the wedding."

The revisionist approach also gives Scottish Ballet a calling card. "In order for us to be able to tour more widely, we need to have something unique to offer," Page says. "A lot of theatres and festivals want full-length ballets, because they know they can sell them. So for us to bring something unique makes it easier for us to get our foot in the door."

The original ballet is part of Page's dance history. After training at the Royal Ballet School, he danced and choreographed with the Royal Ballet, where Petipa's Sleeping Beauty is a part of the company's identity. In 1946, it reopened the Royal Opera House with a magnificent new production, with Margot Fonteyn as Aurora. The Sleeping Beauty made Fonteyn's international reputation; she became the century's most celebrated Aurora.

"In the Petipa, the Royal Ballet version, it's about classicism; how classical dancing has come on and developed," Page says. "He was developing it in the process of making The Sleeping Beauty. It's the iconic work, the mountain you climb. Any classical ballerina wants to do it."

So did he feel nervous about tackling it? "About remaking it? Oh, God, yeah. Of course. It's a huge test for me. The dancers love being involved in the creative process. I'm not sure I'm not being blasphemous, though it will probably sound like it that they would be happy just doing the original. The Petipa choreography is so iconic so perfect, so classical that they might feel they want a bit of an edge on it."

Even so, Page is keeping two of the heroine's traditional solos. "Pretty well everything else will be new. But they are so beautiful, those solos. And I did want to have a reference to the original. That's just an affectionate nod to Petipa, to say, 'This is where this comes from. Thank you for giving us that work. Here's what we think in 2007.'"

Page and his designer Antony McDonald are thinking of 1946 as well as 1890. McDonald has worked regularly with Page, giving Scottish Ballet's full-length works a defining style. His Nutcracker had bold black-and-white lines; Cinderella was punk 18th-century, mixing big skirts, powdered wigs and lurid colours.

With any Sleeping Beauty, the time period is one of the first design questions. Aurora is cursed at her christening, pricks her finger at her birthday party, then sleeps for 100 years. When do those events happen? The 1890 production evoked the French court, moving from the 16th to the 17th century. Over the years, designers have tried other periods, often starting or finishing in the 18th century.

McDonald and Page have chosen a much later setting. Their Aurora is born in the 19th century; McDonald's designs for the christening evoke the Regency. She falls asleep in a neo-Gothic Victorian era. That means she wakes up in the 1940s; in fact, in 1946. So Page and McDonald link their new heroine to the most famous of classical Auroras.

Page talks about a changing story: different versions of the fairy tale, different versions of the ballet. "We're responding to the original story, and to what the ballet added to it," he says, "and then taking that further."

The Sleeping Beauty, Theatre Royal, Glasgow (0870 060 6647), today to 29 December, then touring to 26 January (www.scottishballet.co.uk)