Director/Choreographer: Matthew Bourne
Reviewer: Alex Ramon
When Matthew Bourne collected his well-deserved Special Award at the Olivier ceremony two weeks ago, the prize was in recognition of a body of work that’s not only significantly raised the profile of British dance but also helped to completely transform it as an art form. Principal among the productions that have achieved that is Bourne’s adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, a show which, by replacing the female corps-de-ballet with an all-male ensemble, singlehandedly subverted traditional expectations of this perennially popular ballet, turning it into an overt homoerotic fantasy, and bringing the first huge success to Bourne’s New Adventures company (then called Adventures in Motion Pictures).
First staged in 1995, the production, revised and reimagined “for the 21st century,” now embarks ona 25th-anniversary tour of 22 British venues, with further international dates to be announced. Audiences who’ve seen the production before will be able to comment on how substantive those changes are. But those coming to the show for the first time (like this reviewer) will certainly find the production to be in fresh, invigorating shape.
The male swans may have grabbed the headlines at the production’s premiere but they’re only part of the radical – yet loving – revisioning of Swan Lake that Bourne and his team undertake here. With spiky, witty choreography that draws from a range of contemporary as well as classical influences, the ballet emerges somewhat coarsened but certainly enlivened in this account; it’s the opposite of a stately, reverential occasion. Bourne loves a quirky comic touch, and Lez Brotherson’s vivid design, complemented by Paule Constable’s characteristically superb new lighting, supplies trundling comedy corgis among other crowd-pleasing elements.
Yet emotive themes of longing – for love and liberty – still emerge with great poignancy and power. Bourne’s Prince is an unhappy fellow – a modern royal surrounded by courtiers yet with a solitary, isolated core that’s beautifully conveyed in Dominic North’s very touching performance. Contemplating suicide, he’s saved by a vision of swans on the water; under a glowing moon, these hissing, kicking creatures seem genuinely wild, their grace and danger opening up new possibilities of freedom for our hero. North has great chemistry with Max Westwell (alternating with Will Bozier) who dances the star roles of The Swan/The Stranger Max Westwell with breathtaking technical skill and charisma, making sense first of the Prince’s infatuation – and then of his disillusionment when he meets the Swan’s shadowy double.
That central lake sequence is the high point of Bourne’s production, but the proceedings are kept fresh and fluid in the other scenes, which boast visual riches to match the glory of the music. There are some weaker elements: though apparently snipped from the first production, the ball scene is somewhat tedious, and, more problematically, there’s a whiff of sexism to the portrayal of the female characters – the bubbleheaded girlfriend and the icy, dominating matriarch, though brilliantly performed by Freya Field and Nicole Kabera, respectively – that might get less of a pass in the current climate. The final sequence is powerfully affecting, however, ensuring that this exciting and enchanting production still feels every bit like a new adventure.
Runs until 20 April 2019 | Image: Johan Persson