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How to get fangs into a fairytale

For Matthew Bourne, the "once upon a time" that introduces his new version of Sleeping Beauty is specifically 1890, the very year that Petipa premiered the work he had made to a luscious new score by Tchaikovsky.

A TALE WITH TWISTS: Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty in rehearsal.
A TALE WITH TWISTS: Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty in rehearsal.

If this is a symbolic nod to the Russian origins of Sleeping Beauty as a classical ballet that is still drawing audiences worldwide, it's also a cunning device that allows Bourne to home in on three very different period styles of dance – and affords his designer Lez Brotherston a similar breadth of inspiration.

"It really is the most gorgeous-looking piece," says Bourne. "But I think, actually, that we've also found a way of telling the story that really works for a modern audience. It is still a fairytale, but with a twist – several twists, that you could say give it bite."

This comment is a teasing reference to the character of Count Lilac and the dash of vampirism that keeps romance alive across the century of Aurora's curse-induced sleep. "One of the things that struck me when I came to look at the story," explains Bourne, "is the lack of a proper love story. It doesn't exist until very late on, and even then it's fairly brief. This stranger wakes her with a kiss, it's love at first sight and right away they're getting married. In my version, she's already met her sweetheart Leo. But then the curse happens, and he's faced with this heart-rending task – how can he be there when she wakes up? How can he stay alive for a 100 years, and still be the person she fell in love with?"

The answer is he can't. But, and Bourne is chuckling as he outlines this, there is a way that Aurora's true love can survive. And if she truly loves him, she won't mind that he's now a bit different from the lad she knew before. Think True Blood, the Twilight series and the present enthusiasm for Gothic fantasies tinged with passionate encounters that go for the jugular.

"It's a really popular trend just now, particularly among teenagers," says Bourne. "But when we were working on our story, we realised that there's also a serious side to Aurora's situation. You find yourself thinking of all the relationships where something happens that changes one of the partners. Maybe illness, or an accident. War. Here, it's because Leo has become part of another world, another kind of being. Will Aurora be able to accept that? Will she see that he's still the same person at heart, and that this is what he did for her, for love?"

Suspicion grows that – as in Bourne's much-loved versions of Swan Lake, Nutcracker and Edward Scissorhands – there will be moments when it would be wise to have a hankie to hand. And yet, it seems that he had a long-standing resistance to Sleeping Beauty as a project.

"Over the years I felt I should do it," he says, "because I've always got on well with the Tchaikovsky music. It makes me feel things deep down, it makes me want to create dance and tell stories. But there were aspects of this story, and even the music, that put me off."

A visit to Tchaikovsky's country home, when Bourne's New Adventures company were performing his Cinderella in Moscow, changed his mind. There's a hint of the otherworldy intervention about that shift in perspective as Bourne stood in the composer's room, surrounded by the stark simplicity of the spartan furnishings, looking out of the window at the forest of silver birch trees. "I came home, knowing Sleeping Beauty would be our next project."

The process this time, however, was different. "I did a lot of research," he says. "I looked into the background of the ballet and its history. I explored the various versions of the fairytale and I read up on the psychoanalytical studies of the myths and stories themselves. And what really interested me was the symbolism of the curse, the letting of blood and the fact that teenagers have that lethargic period when they just want to sleep, stay in bed – not grow up, actually. And parents, like Aurora's, are so protective, as if they don't want their children to grow up either."

But Bourne's Aurora does grow up. She celebrates her 21st birthday amid the giddy Edwardian whirl of 1911 and all the American dance trends of the time. And she awakens, a century on, in 2011 and a modern world that is, because of the hints of supernatural subcultures, still rooted in fairytale.

"We never lose sight of it being a fairytale," says Bourne. "But that doesn't mean we can't believe in it. If you listen to the music, it's full of a yearning we can all recognise and understand. Not just, 'Will I find true love?' But 'Will true love find me?' We'd all like to believe in happy endings."

Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty opens at Edinburgh's Festival Theatre tonight and runs until December 1

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