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Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake: Review

Matthew Bourne sent shockwaves through the dance world when he premiered his revolutionary re-imagining of Tchaikovsky’s ballet at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in 1995. This brave production, which became the longest running ballet on Broadway and in the West End, is acclaimed for replacing Swan Lake’s traditionally female ‘corps de ballet’ (ensemble of a ballet company) with male dancers. This broadcast was filmed during the 2018 revival at Sadler’s Wells, which then toured internationally. 

The signature pose of the Bourne swan epitomizes its masculine grace – leg in attitude (a bent-knee arabesque), forearm over the head, arm out, hands relaxed. This is a pose you would never see in a traditional ballet, and it is exquisite. The choreography is balletic but also earthy and angular. These creatures are totally mesmerising, from their body-popping to their menacing stares. The homoerotic ‘pas de deux’ (typically a male/female duet) between the Lead Swan (Will Bozier) and The Prince (Liam Mower) is a stunning representation of forbidden love. They dance the exact same moves but Bozier has an animalistic edge, while Mower is so obviously human. 

My favourite part of the traditional Swan Lake is the notorious ‘pas de quatre’, also known as the ‘Dance of the Cygnets’. It is usually performed by 4 linked female dancers whose head and foot movements are precisely in sync. It is delicate and dainty, consisting mainly of little jumps and relevés. On the contrary, Bourne’s cygnets are boyish, sassy and cool; their hip shaking gives Shakira a run for her money. He explains that his baby swans are not elegant figures but scary, ungainly ones. Total synchronicity is ditched for fun, energetic movements which capture the cute, gawkish nature of baby swans far more than Petipa and Ivanov’s original 1895 choreography. My thoughts were exactly the same as they always are at the end of the Cygnet Dance: I wish it went on for longer. 

Bourne succeeds in bringing in elements of comic relief, something which is scarce in ballet. The Girlfriend (Katrina Lyndon) looks like Elle Woods from Legally Blonde, and achieves many laughs from her lack of theatre etiquette in the Opera House scene; she giggles at the male dancer, chomps through her crackly maltesers packet, and her Barbie-pink flip phone goes off with the Nokia ringtone. In this scene, we watch a caricatural spoof of traditional romantic ballet, complete with pointe shoes, tutus, and bags of melodrama – almost as if Bourne is asserting that this is not what we’ll be getting from his Swan Lake. In the sultry ballroom scene, there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it comedic moment that really tickled me, where a man swiftly ushers his date away from the leather-clad, uber sexy Stranger (also danced by Bozier).

Several different styles are inserted into this piece, so much so that it is not really a ‘ballet’ but rather a contemporary dance show. In the ballroom, we see a racy flamenco dance. In the ‘Swank Club’, jazz and swing dance juxtaposes Tchaikovsky’s classical score. For a party scene, it lacks pizzazz, and I find the choreography a little lazy. I can’t help but judge it against Carlos Acosta and Andrew Wright’s intoxicating Havana Sequence in The Savoy’s 2016 production of Guys and Dolls. However, Lez Brotherston’s set and costume design in this scene injects some magenta into what is otherwise a black-and-white production. 

In fact, something which perplexed me was that the majority of this show is monochromatic; Brotherston’s costume and set seem to blend into one another. There are far too many scenes where the costumes are all-black and the set is grey; it means we cannot fully appreciate the dancers as we can barely see their bodies or feet. The ballroom scene (in which The Stranger lewdly seduces The Prince’s mother) is literally fifty shades of grey – in colour and eroticism. 

One of my main criticisms of this production is that there was just not enough dancing. At the beginning, you endure nearly 6 minutes of tedious mime before anyone starts to dance. The iconic swan theme, which is referenced constantly in pop culture (for example, in Billy Elliot’s breathtaking dream ballet sequence – one of my favourite pieces of choreo ever) is barely danced to. It is probably the most famous piece of ballet music ever, and yet The Prince (Mower, who originated the role of Billy on the West End!) sits and watches projections of flying swans instead of dancing. It seems like a waste. In most of the non-swan scenes, I miss parts of the plot as I find myself watching the background dancers instead of the principals who are trying to act through mime.  

The ‘swansemble’ undeniably steals the show in Bourne’s tradition-shattering masterpiece. I implore anyone – balletomanes and non ballet fans alike – to give this production a go, if only for its sheer audacity. We musn’t forget that a homosexual reinvention of Swan Lake was far more daring in 1995 than it would be now. Bourne explores themes of gay love and repressed sexuality that the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow (who premiered Swan Lake in the late 19th century) could never have even comprehended. Perhaps Tchaikovsky himself – who was involved in several same-sex relationships – would applaud Bourne’s heroic vision of his ballet. 

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