I still salivate when I recapture Matthew Bourne’s interpretation of the Swan Lake ballet with the male swans. It is a sublime reincarnation of the original, with some humor and whimsicality thrown in for good measure. Even though its story diverges from the original, the music is faster and more authentic than in the traditional ballets. It would have made Tchaikovsky proud.
Bourne is a film buff, and brings his cinematic sensibilities to ballet, which makes it all the more appealing to me. In an interview, he shared that he was inspired by Hitchcock’s The Birds, especially in Act 4 of the Swan Lake when the swans turn savage. Hitchcock is a very visual filmmaker. A lot of his storytelling is defined by the way he frames the shots, moves the camera, lights the scene, among other things. So it is interesting to see Bourne bring that sensibility to the staging of a ballet. His characters too take on Hitchcocky characteristics, such as, identity confusion, self-entrapment, paranoia, and some oedipal issues (although he says he was more influenced by Hamlet’s jealousy of his mother’s lover in this aspect); likewise, you see Hitchcockyness in the way he slowly reveals all the aspects of a character over the course of the ballet, and in the way he places the horror in everyday settings.
I have been meaning to read his conversation with Alastair Macaulay about his life, his various works and influences. I wonder if someone with his encyclopaedic knowledge about the arts works off of his subconscious memory, without even intending to draw from them. I might enjoy reading the conversation now, especially since I saw two of his three Tchaikovsky ballets.
Last week, I saw Bourne's Sleeping Beauty ballet at Kennedy Center, in which he spruced up the Disney version of the story with vampires and other gothic elements; all to Tchaikovsky’s music. I expected it to be either old-school Gothic-like, with elements of the original grotesque Sleeping Beauty story, or with Tim Burton’s eccentric style, since Bourne has adapted Edward Scissorhands to contemporary dance with great success in the past. But, it ended up being somewhat tame. With some imagination, it comes close to being as scarily vampiric as the True Blood or the Twilight series.
Perrault’s original story and most early European versions of Sleeping Beauty* had a lot more gothic elements in them than this ballet. Here is my blend of some of the stories I have read:
After the Princess falls asleep, a strange Prince from the neighboring kingdom climbs a tower to find the Princess (assumed dead in some stories) lying in her coffin wearing seven white bridal skirts and silver bells. He is bewitched by her beauty and returns to the tower everyday. One day he kisses her on her lips, and is overwhelmed with an insuppressible urge to keep kissing, until he finally rapes her. Eventually, she gives birth to twins (a boy and a girl). One of her babies mistakes her finger for her breast. He suckles hard on it, and fortuitously pulls out the needle stuck in her finger that put her to sleep. She wakes up and learns that she has been asleep for a hundred years. Just then, the Prince too climbs over the tower and introduces himself as the father to her two children. She instantly falls in love with him and agrees to marry him. Unhappily, the Prince reveals that his stepmother, an Ogress, might not accept the Princess, and may even cause her and her children harm if she finds out about them. So they keep their marriage a secret until the Prince ascends the thrown. The Ogress, then lovingly invites the whole family to her house in the woods, and directs her cook to serve the Princess and the kids as dinner to the Prince. The kind-hearted cook tricks the Ogress and switches the daughter with a lamb, son with a goat, and Princess with hind, and hides the Princess and the kids from the Ogress' sight. But, when the Ogress learns that she has been tricked, she becomes wildly furious and takes matters into her own hands. When the Prince is resting, she orders the cook to summon the Princess, and prepares a fiery pit with noxious creatures to throw the Princess into it. As the Princess is undressed, the silver bells on her skirts ring loudly and alert the Prince. He runs to her rescue. The disgraced Ogress then throws herself into the pit and is fully consumed. The Prince, Princess and the kids live happily ever after.
In Matthew Bourne’s ballet, the Princess falls in love with a gamekeeper, and not a Prince. When she goes to sleep, a fairy turns him into a vampire, so that he can live to see the Princess when she wakes up after 100 years. As the eras change, the Prince goes through enormous transformation. He is now only vestigially a human, and faced with absolute indigence (uncharacteristic of a vampire). He lives in a tent outside the decaying palace overgrown with vines, and woefully waits to wake the Princess up with a kiss. In the mean time, the evil fairy who cursed the Princess to sleep grows lonely and courts the Princess even though she is asleep. He too waits for her to wake up so that he can make her his bride. In the end, the fairy who turned the gamekeeper into a vampire makes quick work of the evil fairy, and the Princess and the gamekeeper live happily every after.
This is the only version of Sleeping Beauty with both male and female fairies, and where time does not stand still, except for Sleeping Beauty. The scenery assumes many transitions, and we are treated to settings of the Late Victorian period, the Edwardian period and modern day; in Russia. But, even as time passes, the story is bound to the historic moment when the curse took effect and put the Princess to sleep. From then on, we deal with the past in the present, and some aspects of the story remain immutable. This is amplified by the fact that time has completely stopped for Sleeping Beauty. Even in the future, in her dreams, she remains in the past.
I love romance. It is the most veritable way to experience something unreal happening to us. In romance, we reach out to a fantasy that wasn’t instinctually real for us until then. We embrace this irrepressible feeling, even though it contradicts our natural urge to shelter ourselves from the unattainable, albeit with eager hesitation. Love always brings with it a sweet pain. And Gothic, with its excesses, elevates this feeling to an epic stature. It turns reality on its head, so that the improbable is probable and the real is unreal. It drops us where opposing qualities mingle and bring forth a pleasing terror.
Over the years, Gothic has evolved into male and female genres (mostly a separate female genre), with the former being associated with horror and the latter with terror.
In the female Gothic, where women write for women, the stories mostly cater to women’s suppressed desires. At the same time, they also play on their everyday fears of rape, abduction and violence; and remind them of their reality of being weaker, helpless and oppressed by men. The plot oscillates between reality and the supernatural, while often siding with one over the other. Many women authors favor “imagined evil” over the supernatural or “realistic evil”; the philosophy being that real terror arises from the voices in one’s own mind.
Even in the earliest gothic stories ever written (and by men), women were mostly depicted as being fearfully trapped, either physically in labyrinths, or mentally, because of their own discrepant impulses.
In male Gothic (as in, general Gothic), pain is mixed with pleasure to form a pleasing horror. The horror is considered pleasurable because of our awareness that the perception of fear is fictional. The stories heighten uncertainty and celebrate the immeasurable. The contemplation of the immeasurability arouses awe, while our inability to fathom it gives rise to displeasure.
I find that Sleeping Beauty is among the rare exceptions that transcends this distinction. Each version of the story fleshes out either the terror or the horror in the story, or both!
Mathew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty begins in 1890, the year that the original Sleeping Beauty ballet premiered in Russia. Interestingly, this time period was also the beginning of the century of Gothic fiction (or Fin de siècle). This was also the period of degeneration, when cynicism and pessimism among the people led to decadence. Gothic was everywhere, in art, in plays and operas, novels and short stories, and even newspapers.
This was the era of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Stoker’s Dracula, Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, and James’ Turn of the Screw. The 1900s was also when cinema was introduced to the larger mainstream, followed by radio and television. People began their visual assault of the next 125 years of cinema with fiction that had strong gothic elements. The malleable and fantastic nature of Gothic added to the magic of moving images. And because Gothic is the genre of Borrowings, which cannot be circumscribed to any one period or style, it helped address many cultural concerns. It blends romanticism with idealism, and individualism with societal decadence, and anything else that you want to add to the mix.
But, the story arc is almost always one of subversion. Set in the gloom of a cursed castle or strange world, the good people are at the mercy of dark powers, whose origin is shrouded. They lurk in the shadows, waiting for a ripe time to threaten the people into physical and mental dissolution using diabolical means. But, in the end, through bravery or deception, the hero vanquishes the evil and good prevails. (Unless it is Grimm’s Tales, in which case, the story may end with the children being eaten).
But, in Michel Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty with vampires and a princess hijacked by dreams, it is not the hero who vanquishes evil, but a fairy, because the hero isn’t even fully solid! His abhuman gothic body is as helpless as the Princess languishing in the unconscious world.
In a way, we relate to them, because we have at least in one point in our life experienced the state of being both alive and ‘not’; be it in our mother’s womb, or in our sleep or in some kind of unconsciousness. We have, through the use of hallucinogens or because of illness, experienced feeling out of control, and not feeling fully human. We have waited endlessly, and helplessly, for our loved one to be saved by a miracle. We viscerally remember this as we watch the plights of the Princess and the Gamekeeper.
There is something to say for the fact that these stories have eternal appeal. We keep readapting them with little changes to their basic features. This may be because they provide symbolic mechanisms to help us confront the anomalies and contradictions even in our modern times. And because they are set in haunting distance from us, they provide us with time-honored way to deal with our forbidden desires and deviant thoughts that we divorce ourselves from in real life.
Gothic allows us to transgress moral laws in a richly complex way. There is mental degeneration, spiritual corruption, selfish ambition and carnal desire, but they are all obscured of single meaning by a supernatural subtext. The supernatural allows us to take everything in without being troubled with moral judgment. But, when the story ends on a happy note, we are forced to assimilate the moral of the story; that transgression, even in its darkest form comes with dangers. Terror begins where the rules of social behavior are neglected. This helps restore moral lines. This story would have been entirely different if the king did not neglect to invite the evil witch who granted them a daughter, to her christening ceremony!
The ballet lends itself surprising well to this Gothic retelling of a fairytale. Gothic in many ways opposes the rigidity of classical ballet. Its aesthetic rules insist on unity and symmetry. But here, you see the dancers break rules, and embrace disarray, and play up the grandeur and magnificence of the gothic world.
While writing this post, I read that Bourne used About the Sleeping Beauty by PL Travers (a book that shares five versions of Sleeping Beauty) and Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment (a book that analyses children's fairytales), for his research! I wonder if he decided that the original Sleeping Beauty plots had very little love, and too much macabre weirdness even for a Gothic retelling. Moreover, what would you make of a story where a Prince looks at a sleeping Princess for the very first time, and kisses her, and she wakes up and immediately agrees to marry him? Bourne was not impressed. Is love at first sight, with a comatosed Princess, or with a strange Prince who kisses you in your sleep, your thing? The impossible love between a commoner and royalty in a supernatural world is still far more Gothicy and realistic!
*Here is a list of some popular Sleeping Beauty versions: The Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault, Little Briar Rose and The Evil Mother-in-Law (split into two stories) by the Brothers Grimm, a story in Frayre de Joy e Sor de Placer (A14th century Catalan collection), ‘Troylus and Zellandine’ in the Perceforest, Sole, Luna e Talia in The Pentamerone by Giambattista Basile, Sleeping Beauty and her Children in Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales… and a gazillion other variants, not including adaptations in other non-literary mediums.
It has been nearly 150 years since Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland was written, and hundreds of creatives have taken a stab at it and made it their own; the depth and beauty of each interpretation rivalling the other, and exalting the original. I find myself delighting in at least one adaptation of Alice a year.
The story is a very physical one that is both literal and fantastical, and therefore lends itself well to being communicated through any medium! But, no previous adaptation saw audiences line up at the box office at 3:30 AM to get rush tickets like Christopher Wheeldon's contemporary ballet when it first premiered in 2011! Even when we saw it last week at the Kennedy Center, two years since its premiere, and a year after our own Washington Ballet performed its interpretation of Alice in April 2012, it was sold out! The day also coincided with Lewis Carroll's 181st birthday!
I could feel his spirit in the dance and music, even though they were the two elements missing in the book; Likewise, the book had wordplay and logical puzzles locked into every page and the ballet had no words! And still, Wheeldon managed to replace the literary strengths of the book with physical and subversive humor, ballet wit, and an astounding visual and melodic vocabulary. It was enthralling to see all the scenes rising from the pages and translating into movement. The music, characterization, dance and decor, all had a cinematic and colorful feel that played on the physicality of the written word and catered to our non-literal perception of the world.
But, what I liked the most about the ballet is that it drew on the life of Lewis Carroll himself; especially his controversial connection with children. He played a pivotal character in the ballet, wherein he appeared as a family friend and photographer at the garden party hosted by the Liddell family; He entertained the young Liddell daughters (including Alice), and eventually transformed into the White Rabbit and lured Alice into the rabbit hole! This is much like in Carroll's real life, where he spent a lot of time with a real Liddell family, and is said to have originally narrated the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to the young Liddells! He was also considered one of the best amateur photographers of his time, back when photography was still in its infancy. He particularly enjoyed photographing close family, friends and children… but eventually gave up the hobby when the art got easier with technological advancements, and it ceased to excite him in the same way.
He played a vital role in bringing up his eleven siblings, entertaining them with funny stories, puzzles, magic and puppetry, and you see all these elements in the ballet. The ballet was narrated in an episodic manner, where each story took place in a new exotic setting: some grotesque, some orchidaceous, and some eye-catchingly foreign-looking; all multi-dimensional and enhanced with hi-tech video projectors that magically flowed in and out of the same space! There were several whimsical characters in flamboyant costumes, displaying talent, drama and humor all at once. It was a visual wonder that exceeded my wildest imagination. It was as if every scene was an elaborate visual panegyric celebrating Carroll's love for magic!
To describe some of the scenes, there was a typical English garden party attended by an Indian maharaja in a palatial Victorian manor; Alice went down the rabbit hole and found herself in the curious hall with many locked doors that seemed to get bigger and smaller as she got tinier and taller; At one point, Alice was trapped inside a tiny tilted room that appeared out of no where; She swam in between waves in a pool of her own tears with several exotic animals; This was the same pool that she later sailed on in a paper boat with the White Rabbit (This scene was inspired by Lewis Carroll's love for folding paper and setting them off to sail in the water); She found herself outside the Duchess' pretty cottage that later revealed itself as a grotesque Sweeney Todd-esque pig butchery; She encountered a nutty tap-dancing Mad Hatter in his bizarre tea party, followed by an exotic middle eastern caterpillar in a shimmering mushroom; She joined the Queen of Hearts and the Duchess in the Victorian maze garden for a game of croquet (a game Lewis Carroll is known to love) using flamingoes and hedgehogs; and finally found herself in a courtroom made of a deck of cards (another game he is known to love) and implored the Queen to release the Knave!
The music gave the ballet its textural bulk and worked with the other visual elements to both enhance the humor and drive the narrative forward. It was always in the foreground, communicating the emotions and dialogues for the actors, and creating atmospheric underscores. Every character that Alice met, was on his own musical journey with a different musical instrument associated with him, that she then painted over with the aural colour of her own mood! It was wonderful to see how the same musical elements of a character transformed as they got filtered through another character's emotions! Or how the composer used a violin for the Queen of Hearts, a celesta for the White Rabbit, a oboe d’amore for the middle eastern caterpillar and so on, and layered each in a way that they worked together in perfect melodic and rhythmic harmony. And my favourite part was when the music and dance came together more rhythmically in the Mad Hatter's frenzy-filled tap dance, and the caterpillar's undulating moves!
There were some dance elements that were both hilarious and unbelievably athletic. For instance, the Queen of Hearts paid tribute to the Rose Adagio in the Sleeping Beauty ballet, which is a difficult sequence in which she had to keep steady on one foot for over a minute, while pirouetting and performing various moves. In Sleeping Beauty, the ballerina is aided by four princes who take turns as she takes off from each of them and proceeds to dance with the next. But, since the cavalry is fearful of dancing with the Queen, should they accidentally make the wrong move and have their heads cut off, the resulting dance was particularly comical, and portrayed the queen as being graceful, fierce, and uncoordinated all at once!
Sometimes, even though the live orchestra was visibly prominent, in between the stage and the audience, I got so involved in the drama that I forget that there were real people playing the music that these dancers were performing to!
As much as Alice in Wonderland has transformed over the years, the creative leaps in Performing Arts too have been getting curiouser and curiouser throughout this time! There was as much choreography off stage as there was on stage, and you could tell that from how swiftly the sets appeared and disappeared, and actors changed costumes in no time and looked dramatically different every time they entered the stage.
The divide between the stage and the audience was sometimes momentarily bridged, when the audience was in Wonderland, and the flower dancers danced among us, and confetti rained from above, while Alice was in the curious hall with the many locked doors, trying to get to where we were! She was first too tiny and then too tall, and tried very hard to squeeze through a peewee door and set foot in our Wonderland, but to no avail!
Then, there were hi-tech video projectors, large and small, that created perspective as Alice spiralled down the rabbit-hole and had many out-of-the-way things happen to her.
When technology was not used, there were invisible men puppeteering a giant-sized Cheshire cat whose limbs disengaged from the body and floated about freely all over the stage and around Alice. He was my most favorite character in the ballet!
When you have $2 million dollars, oodles of talent, and a whimsical Lewis Carroll story at your disposal, there is no limit to what Alice can dream up; Unlike the book, where she played an observer, here she was the architect of her journey, so she could stay in Wonderland for as long as she wanted, but, unfortunately for me, she did ultimately wake up, and there ended my dream.
Here are some articles on Lewis Carroll, a man of many personalities, and the real Alice:
Lewis Carroll: An Unconventional Character
Lewis Carroll's magic
Years Beyond The Rabbit Hole, 'Alice' Looks Back
Review of "The Mystery of Lewis Carroll"
The Lewis Carroll Society of North America
(Mary Blair is the artist who did the concept art for Disney's Alice in Wonderland!)