Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake at Sadler’s Wells is a glittering, extravagant Christmas Show, immaculately performed by star dancers with humour and palace interiors enough to satisfy a seasonal audience.
It’s twenty-three years since the opening of the first production of this Swan Lake famous for replacing the original graceful female swans of composer Tchaikovsky’s ballet with men. In 1995 this was revolutionary in dance terms bringing to the narrative of a most familiar nineteenth-century ballet a tangible sense of danger and feral menace truer to the nature of swans in life than the original concept.
Matthew Bourne also swopped the role of the female protagonist trapped by a curse as a swan in the original ballet into a male Prince trapped in a palace by the regimented expectations of his unloving queen mother and her courtiers. In the narrative, he finds a male love. This was cutting edge in 1995, a year in which an effective anti viral treatment for AIDS had at last been approved after the virus had caused devastation as a mortal epidemic for more than a decade, its links with homosexuality so feared the general public had to be taught it was safe to shake hands or drink from the same teacup without risk. The homoerotic elements of Bourne’s version of the old timeless love story were representing triumph over a modern dark narrative of repression, love and death.
It’s easy to forget this in the auditorium of London’s leading contemporary dance house at Christmas in Islington in 2018 but play this show in some parts of America and, maybe, it would have a different resonance. It was only in November this year that Colorado elected America’s first openly gay governor to live in a governor’s mansion.
There’s a beautiful recurring motif in this show of a swan flying, Duncan McLean is the Video Designer. In nature when a cygnet turned into a new swan leaves its parents it flies away from them in search of a flock of other similar adolescents who stay together. It is from this joined grouping the new swan will eventually choose a mate for life. This Swan Lake describes that journey of a man who doesn’t fit the expectations of the life in which he was born.
After lively opening palace scenes describing the way in which all agency has been removed from The Prince, danced on opening night by Liam Mower, by the trappings of obligation in his palace lifestyles his rebellion is first expressed in the form of a blonde, mini dressed Girlfriend. Danced with charm by Katrina Lyndon her inappropriateness as his future Queen is a recurrent source of humour. While many members of the audience enjoyed this sometimes pantomime style levity there was also unease because we were being asked to judge this girl on her appearance and by the same rigid standards as the Prince’s mother in order to find that humour. She was to be dismissed from the start before we knew anything about her and we knew it. This becomes alienating in 2018 in a way in which it might not have done in 1995. Were bimbo’s still a thing then?
The Queen is another female character not to like. Unloving, contemptuous, unable to have empathy for her son’s predicaments, she reserves her attempts at love for passing seductions. Danced by Nicole Kabera with a keen understanding of her role there are repeated references to the Oedipal in their relationship.
Most of the gorgeous women invited to the palace ball are described as corrupt in the shallowness of their attachments too. Perhaps this is supposed to be part of a problem with palace life in this particular place but it also becomes a problem with the overwhelmingly cynical representation of women in what is now a different century.
While the repeated palace scenes can become enervating and repetitious (we can understand the Prince’s oppression in a single scene) and the humour is a touch predictable, even gimmicky (the corgi bites the Girlfriend) there are three brilliant scenes in this Swan Lake. Matthew Ball, the Principal Dancer borrowed from the Royal Ballet is in them all. So was Liam Mower, formerly one of the dancers in Billy Elliot, who danced the role of The Prince on opening night and communicated the fragility and confusion of the young man who could never fit in. leaving him always alone.
The first meeting between The Prince and Matthew Ball as The Swan accompanied by his flock of swans at the lakeside is stunning. The lake and the wonder of a starry night are described by Designer Lez Brotherston’s set as so much more beautiful than any palace can be.
Bourne’s choreography describes the powers of these swans, making them soar through the air, not earthbound as the palace inhabitants always must be.
It’s in this scene that the Prince learns where he belongs, to whom he belongs, what he wants. It’s about transformation and self-knowledge communicated through the metaphor of dance. The careful momentum of the pas de deux describing the movement of two who meet as strangers to intimacy and attachment is beautiful and moving indeed.
The second brilliant scene is when Matthew Ball becomes The Stranger in the role of major disrupter at a palace ball. He’s riveting.
Shadows are effectively used in the show but the final part of the show in which the rest of the flock of swans fatally attack The Prince and his Swan Lover is danced in almost full light. The forms the swan dancers create become fascinatingly sculptural staged in this way. I do however remember when I first saw Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake in 1998 in its second incarnation at Sadler’s Wells this final scene was performed in a near darkness in which the threat of the male physicality of the swans moving towards violence of the flock was alarming and unforgettable. In the light, it’s easier to study the clever choreography describing their nature but it lacks the intense emotional impression of the dark.
This production perhaps concentrates too much on lighter aspects at the expense of the beat of truthmaking dark art but there’s no doubt it’s a first-class production superbly performed at Christmas time.
Review by Marian Kennedy
Swan Lake returns with a fresh look for the 21st century. Retaining the iconic elements of the original, Matthew Bourne and award-winning designers Lez Brotherston (set and costumes) and Paule Constable (lighting) will create an exciting re-imagining of the classic production.
Thrilling, audacious and emotive, this Swan Lake is perhaps best known for replacing the female corps-de-ballet with a menacing male ensemble, shattering convention and taking the dance world by storm.
Collecting over 30 international accolades including an Olivier and three Tony Awards, Bourne’s powerful interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece is a passionate and contemporary Swan Lake for our times.
New Adventures – Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake
4 Dec 2018 – 27 Jan 2019
Rosebery Avenue, London, EC1R