Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake
Choreography by Matthew Bourne; music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Alhambra Theatre, Bradford
Over the last 30 years, Matthew Bourne and his company New Adventures have enjoyed extraordinary critical and commercial success. No other British choreographer has done so much to bring audiences into the theatre to watch dance.
I’ve seen several of Bourne’s shows—earlier this year I gave a rave review to a revival of his Cinderella—but I’m sure he would happily concede that he is still best known for his breakthrough show. It’s been 23 years since Bourne’s reimagining of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake was first performed at Sadler’s Wells, but the show still looms large in the public imagination.
The Prince (Dominic North) is deeply unhappy. Life as a royal, with its various obligations (a boat christening, a ribbon cutting), leaves him bored and unsatisfied. He craves affection from his mother, the Queen (Nicole Kabera), but she is cool and distant, even hitting him when he attempts to embrace her.
For a while, the Prince finds himself drawn to an uncouth young woman (Katrina Lyndon), but he is shattered when he sees her being paid off by the Queen’s Private Secretary (Glenn Graham).
At the end of his tether, the Prince decides to drown himself in a lake, but at the crucial moment he is saved by a vision of swans. Furthermore, the lead Swan (Will Bozier) has already appeared to him in one of his dreams.
This is a truly outstanding piece of work, and I feel deeply fortunate to have had the chance to see it. With Swan Lake, Bourne has taken one of the most beloved ballets in the repertoire and opened it up in a number of bold and imaginative ways.
Before 1995, people associated Swan Lake with women in tutus. Bourne’s male swans—stripped to the waist with white feathered breeches—are just as otherworldly as their forerunners, but they substitute feminine delicacy for masculine vigour. They are seductive yet dangerous.
Bourne embraces the psychosexual undercurrents of the original ballet by channelling them into the Prince. His relationship with his mother bears traces of Hamlet, and it’s up for debate whether or not the supernatural scenes are figments of his overheated imagination. Some critics have attempted to dismiss this production as “the gay Swan Lake”, but this label fails to convey the complex network of desires that run through the show.
Although this new production has been updated (revised choreography, some fresh design), it retains all the essentials that made the original such a phenomenal success.
Lez Brotherston’s award-winning set design conveys the grandeur of a royal palace, with its stately pillars and oversized beds, and the magical landscape of a moonlit lake. His costumes, particularly the white breeches worn by the swans, leave an indelible impression.
Dominic North is terrific as the Prince, powerfully conveying the character’s romantic yearnings and his descent into madness and despair. He is matched by the equally impressive Will Bozier, whose lithe physicality makes the lead Swan a threatening yet seductive presence on stage. His performance as the Stranger (the Black Swan), who arrives at the ball and seduces all the woman there, is aggressively sexual and completely different from his ethereal Swan.
Nicole Kabera perfectly captures the Queen’s icy hauteur and Katrina Lyndon is refreshingly down-to-earth and funny as the Girlfriend. The male performers who play the swans are outstanding and the female corps de ballet are particularly impressive in the ballroom scene.
Bourne is a terrific entertainer with a flair for storytelling. His choreography drives the plot whilst also revealing character. In an evening filled with memorable sequences, I was particularly struck by the pas de deux between the Prince and the lead Swan in act II.
There is so much going on in this production that I feel I have barely scratched the surface. Bourne has taken Tchaikovsky’s wondrous score and produced a show that is unbearably beautiful, romantic and bonkers. Utterly brilliant.