British choreographer Matthew Bourne created something of a sensation in 1995, when he choreographed a version of the iconic 19th-century ballet, Swan Lake, in which the swans were danced by men rather than women. Three years earlier, he had choreographed Nutcracker!, setting it in an orphanage for waifs and strays. Both ballets have music by Tchaikovsky, and last year Bourne turned his hand to making a version of The Sleeping Beauty, another ballet masterwork from the 19th-century with a Tchaikovsky score.
Bourne set his reimagined Sleeping Beauty across three eras and populated it with characters that do not appear in the traditional ballet. Now a film of Bourne's Sleeping Beauty is about to open in Australia.
When I spoke to Bourne in London, he had just finished editing the film. ''Australia will see the world premiere,'' he says. ''Not even my company will have seen it when it opens there. It was filmed over a week before a live audience at the Bristol Hippodrome and I am very happy with the results. This way of filming very much gives the viewer the sensation of being there in the theatre.''
Bourne, who has also choreographed for the musical theatre stage with productions of Oliver!, My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins and South Pacific among his credits, says he traces his interest in Tchaikovsky to his teenage years, when his fascination with musicals began. ''The Tchaikovsky scores make me want to move and tell a story,'' he says. ''They are so melodious and they remind me of what I love about musical theatre. With the Tchaikovsky ballet scores I am very drawn to the drama of the music and I always felt that there were hidden depths in the music that were not explored in the traditional ballets.''
With the traditional Sleeping Beauty, Bourne was bemused by the fact that after 100 years - the length of time in which Princess Aurora sleeps - nothing seems to have changed when she is woken by a kiss from a prince. As he began to think about a new production, Bourne decided to work backwards. He would have Aurora wake up and marry in the present day. The storyteller in him also demanded that the characters be developed in greater depth than we see in the traditional ballet, and also that the love story be more prominent.
The Bourne Sleeping Beauty begins in 1890, the year of the first production of the ballet in Russia and, unlike the situation in the traditional version, we get to know the baby Aurora very quickly. Gone is the inanimate doll in a cradle that we usually see. Bourne's baby Aurora is a puppet with a distinctive personality. She is an unruly child. She cries a lot, runs away, even climbs curtains at one stage. Bourne thus sets the scene for the Aurora we encounter at her coming of age, when time has moved on to 1911: the Edwardian age. Aurora is now a young woman, again with a very distinctive personality. She is a woman of the future, a child of nature, perhaps a little like dancer Isadora Duncan, who was at the height of her popularity in the Edwardian period.
After her long, long sleep of 100 years, Aurora then finds herself in a nightclub. The time is the present, ''last night'' Bourne says, and life has become a little more confrontational for Aurora. ''Wild'' is the word Bourne uses.
The love interest centres on a relationship Aurora has as a young girl with Leo, the gardener or perhaps gamekeeper in her palatial childhood home. Unlike the princes in the traditional ballet who vie for Aurora's love at her coming of age, Leo is not of royal descent. He and Aurora are childhood sweethearts. But as in the traditional story, the theme of good versus evil is central. Bourne introduces a rival love interest in the form of Caradoc, the malevolent and vengeful son of Carabosse, the wicked fairy of the traditional ballet. As the work comes to a conclusion, Aurora and Leo - who in a supernatural twist of vampire-ish proportions is given immortality - have to fight for their love. Bourne keeps the tension alive until the very end of the story. Will Leo triumph over Caradoc? With Bourne, anything could happen.
Those who know the traditional ballet will most certainly recognise the new work, even if the Lilac Fairy is Count Lilac, with attendant fairies who have names such as Feral and Tantrum, and even if the story moves way beyond the fairytale setting and the choreography is no longer purely classical ballet. ''I have created a different look and set of manners, including theatrical manners, for each era in which my story is set,'' Bourne says. The coming-of-age scenes, for example, take inspiration from the dances that were popular at the time - the foxtrot, the maxixe, the Castle walk, as danced by Vernon and Irene Castle.''
This Sleeping Beauty is visually stunning, too, thanks to the creativity of set and costume designer Lez Brotherston, one of Bourne's regular collaborators. Brotherston was nominated for an Olivier Award for outstanding achievement in dance for his designs for The Sleeping Beauty. As for the very genial Bourne, he is a consummate storyteller with an extraordinarily inventive mind. The Sleeping Beauty on film holds our attention from beginning to end.
The Sleeping Beauty choreographed by Matthew Bourne, distributed by Sharmill Films. Dendy Cinemas Canberra, September 8 and 12. Tickets and session times dendy.com.au. Also screening at Greater Union Manuka, September 7 and 8, eventcinemas.com.au.