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Mats Ek's Sleeping Beauty
choreography and stage direction by Mats Ek * sets and costume design by Peder Freiij * directed for television by Gunilla Wallin * music performed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra * The Cullberg Ballet
Vanessa de Lignière, Princess Aurora * Gamal Gouda, Carabosse * Gunilla Hammar, Queen Silvia * George Elkin, King Florestan
16:9 anamorphically enhanced DVD * PCM stereo * subtitles in English, French & German
Arthaus 100 054 [106min]
General comments on the Arthaus range of classical DVDs

This is extraordinary, but less anyone decide to incorporate that statement into publicity material let me immediately add that I would expect them to have the decency to print the full sentence, which concludes by saying that extraordinary is not always a good thing. It is as well to remember that the title of this disc is Mat Ek's Sleeping Beauty, because it certainly isn't Tchaikovsky's. This is a version of Sleeping Beauty as entirely re-written, re-choreographed and modernised by Mats Ek, bearing a similar relation to the original as Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (the 1997 cinema film) does to Shakespeare's play, Romeo and Juliet.

This particular 'performance' is not live, but was shot specially for television, being a co-production with BBC2, where it was shown last year. The benefits are enormous; the absence of a live audience means director Gunilla Wallin can produce something much more 'filmic' and polished, much more able to bear the scrutiny of repeating viewings, something specifically designed for television rather than theatrical viewing. Compared to various live opera and ballet videos and DVDs Wallin is able to apply a much more imaginative and appropriate range of shots, including the close-ups all to often missing from comparable ventures, and equally importantly, she is able to light the sets so as to be able to obtain striking images with depth of field and strong contrast. If ever there was an argument for 'live' operas and ballets to be shot specifically for video and DVD without the audience present, this is it. This is, in short, much more of a complete entity in its own right, rather than simply a record of a theatrical event.

Let us add to this praise some truly memorable costume design clothing performers of the highest order. I have not called them dancers for one very good reason. This Sleeping Beauty, while involving some very imaginative and accomplished dance, requires very much more than that from its uniformly brilliant young cast. Ek calls upon his performers not only to dance, but also to be mime artists and actors, and then to combine all these talents into performances which are not only physically dazzling, but shot through with humanity, emotion and wit. This is extraordinary. Memorable scenes abound, perhaps none more enthralling than the delivery room sequence in which Princess Aurora is born.

Unfortunately there are problems. Ek has dispensed with the original fairytale narrative, and done the dubious thing of attempting to make the whole 'relevent' for a modern adult audience. Consequently he has decided that, so he is quoted as saying in the booklet, "each fairytale has something of its own, a dark point where something inexplicable happens. In Sleeping Beauty, for me, this point is the mysterious pricking and the sleep that follows it." With a staggering lack of imagination this pricking becomes for Ek, the heroin user's needle. Yes, his heroine takes heroin. Which is all sordid and pathetically commonplace, rather than mysterious and inexplicable, as if Ek has decidedly to deliberately strip all magic and 'otherness' from the ballet. Yet such is the strength of the choreography, the performances, the direction, that much enchantment survives, the vaguely mid-20th century setting alternately making the music seem old fashioned and dated, then wondrously timeless.

The story is simplicity itself. Boy meets girl. They have a baby, who as a teenager is courted by various young men before falling in with a heroin user and ultimately rescued by a decent young man who shows her true love. Within this framework many of the finest scenes come from the four fairies, who are magical, capricious, sensual and eccentric to a fault. Meanwhile Ek blends fantasy and reality to the extent that sometimes, even after several viewings, it is not possible to say what might be going on, or what the point might be. Indeed, our ultimate hero says this very thing, complaining (like the brigadier in Monty Python) that the whole thing is going too far and that everyone is out of their minds. He is even offered a remote control and the opportunity to 'change channels', playing a conventional version of the ballet until he becomes bored with the female dancers all performing like puppets. The criticism of traditional versions of the ballet could not be any clearer if it were shouted from the rooftops, but sometimes it is hard to see what Ek offers that is better. His narrative is so thin and obvious many several scenes are mere packing, while the comprehensible points he makes are so obvious as to barely need making. A plunge into a parody of a TV cookery show may be intended to emphasis the banality of conventional TV, but really, do we need to be told? Especially when it so shatters the narrative flow.

Meanwhile the breaking down of the barriers between drama, fantasy and TV show, by actually showing us the TV studio, camera crew and all on several occasions, only serves to break the spell further, and has been done so many times before as to be a cliché rather than an innovation. The last time anyone got away with it was Kenneth Branagh at the beginning of his film of Henry V (1989), and Branagh is a great film maker. Wallin is not. Here it merely plays up the cheapness of the production which otherwise the fine cast generally make us forget, and once reminded we began to wonder what this might look like with a film budget and someone like Ridley Scott in control.

The sound is good but not exceptional. Astonishingly, despite only being made last year the DVD is only PCM stereo, rather than Dolby Digital 5.1. Of course the National Philharmonic acquit themselves well, though this is not the place to come to really here the score, as sound effects are prominent in places, as are screams, gun shots and assorted dialogue, much of it shouted. Then there is also the ingenious gimmickry of the opening to Act II, the tempo accelerating and decelerating akin to a tape being speeded and slowed as Auora dances as though her body is under the control of the drug rather than her own will. An astonishing piece of work by Vanessa de Lignière. As for the dialogue, there is perhaps only five minutes of it, but it is deliberately and provocatively crude, in both the 'obscene' and racial senses, to the extend where in a Hollywood thriller it would earn an 18 certificate. That this is 'art' and therefore exempt from classification is a fine indication of the double standards and hypocrisy of the British Board of Film Classification. It also serves the drama not one iota.

What else can be said? Well, the picture quality is very good indeed, doing justice to the wonderful colours and many notable scenes. Ultimately though I can't but feel that this is less than the sum of many individually excellent parts. It is, frankly, no where near as clever or profound as it thinks it is. For all the implied iconoclasm the sexual politics seem decidedly old-fashioned and unlikely to win over the PC lobby, which can only be a good thing. I am however surprised that the Thought Police haven't slapped a warning on the box regarding the use of the 'N' word. Forget about all that: the choreography and the performances are a joy to behold. Enjoy Sleeping Beauty for the pleasure of the dance. Just don't expect it to mean anything.


Gary S. Dalkin

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