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
Arthaus 100 054
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
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
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
features (for programme