Music: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Director and Choreographer: Matthew Bourne
Reviewer: Sophia Moss
“Don’t feed the swans” reads the sign standing next to a park bench where The Prince (Liam Mower) is writing a suicide note. Drunk and despondent, the prince plans to drown himself in Swan Lake, but before he can take his life, smoke starts to engulf the space and a game of swans, with bare, muscular chests, fluffy white trousers and bare feet, swarm the stage.
Bourne’s Swan Lake, first performed in 1995, is best known for male dancers playing the (traditionally female)swans. As The Prince role remains male, Bourne turned Swan Lake into a same-sex love story.The Swan (Matthew Bell) and The Prince (Liam Mower) have great chemistry on stage and their duets ring with tenderness and affection. In one scene, The Prince wraps his arms around The Swans legs. In another, The Swan lifts The Prince in a gentle hugging movement.
More than 20 years after Swan Lake’s debut, it is still a rare and beautiful thing to see men dance together, show open affection for each other, and, in The Prince’s case, play more submissive, emotional characters. Both Bell and Mower are good actors and, in addition to the choreography, they use facial expressions and mime to convey emotion.
Swan Lake also challenged conventions with its mix of classical ballet and contemporary dance styles. Bourne is famous for breaking traditions: whether that be reversing gender roles or adding flexed feet to his choreography. Traditional ballet moves, like pirouettes, leaps and lifts are combined with floor roles, feet stamping, mime and verbal noises.
The swans are not silent dancers: they make “sha!”, “shh” and hissing noises whenever they are on stage, which echoes the sounds real swans make and adds a sense of authenticity to the show. Bourne’s choreography is inspired by the way real swans move: an arm covering the head in a resting position and the large, wing-like arm movements and back isolations give the dancers animalistic realism.
In one scene, the royal family goes to the theatre and the audience joins them in watching a short ballet parody performed in a crooked mock-stage. The ballet, which features people dressed as bees, a damsel who does nothing but swoon, a man wielding an axe and some grey faced monsters, is a parody snapshot of what people expect from classical ballet. Swan Lake is a tragic story, but Bourne adds a healthy amount of humour for balance.
When The Stranger (Matthew Ball), a leather trouser wearing, chain-smoking, shot drinking womaniser who oozes sex appeal, arrives at a royal ball, he attracts everyone including The Prince and his mother. These scenes switch flawlessly between reality and imagination. With a switch of lighting, we are in The Prince’s mind, where he dances with The Stranger in a passionate, sometimes violent but emotionally charged act, and then we are back to reality, and The Prince is driven mad by rejection. Both Ball and Mower show impressive acting skills, showing us tenderness, affection, passion, desperation, rejection and anger, all without saying a word.
Bourne’s Swan Lake is about freedom. Freedom to love, freedom from duties and other peoples (or swans) expectations, even freedom from reality. The fluid choreography, in contrast with the restrictions of traditional classical ballet, feeds into the theme of freedom. The choreography breaks down the barriers between dance styles as the story breaks down barriers between ‘real’ life and fantasy.
Swan Lake is the perfect show for people who don’t like “traditional” ballet. If you want to see a performance that breaks down traditional dance styles, rejects stereotypical gender roles, a performance that continues to defy expectations over 20 years later, then head down to Sadlers Wells before it’s too late.
Runs until 27 January 2019. | Image: Contributed