Matthew Bourne’s brilliant realisation of Swan Lake was first created in 1995 when it shook the ballet world by presenting the swans, not as delicate women in feathered head dresses and tutus but as aggressive male swans with all the power, beauty, and unpredictable behaviour of the actual species.
While the original production was not universally acclaimed, it soon gained recognition as a masterpiece of modern ballet which has continued to delight audiences for 23 years. The current production, revived in 2015, retains the core of the original with some exciting additional material.
At the heart of the production is Bourne’s thrilling choreography which is as effective in comic scenes like the stultifying representation of the Queen’s court and the hilarious ‘ballet within the ballet’ of the first act as it is in later chilling scenes which reveal the savagery of the swans in the their natural habitat and the dominating power of the Swan (king) when he takes human form.
The production is a synthesis of outstanding artistic ability, including Lez Brotherston’s renowned set and costumes, Paule Constable’s imaginative lighting and Duncan McLean’s effective use of video.
Principal performances are distinguished by artistry, convincing characterisation and, in the lighter moments, by highly entertaining comedic skills. The storyline is clearly communicated through understated gesture and mime and the dance sequences, whether by principals or the large corps de ballet are accomplished, deeply felt and very moving.
Will Brazier is mesmerising as Swan. His malevolent glare, sometimes directed out to the audience, speaks volumes about the dangerous nature of this ‘creature from another world’. By comparison, Dominic North is a frail and conflicted Prince and the pas de deux between them reveal a gradual progression from distrust and uncertainty to acceptance and understanding of the strange ‘other’.
Nicola Kabera’s Queen is a cold, controlling, disapproving mother, economical in gesture but totally in command. It is a tribute to the power of Swan that he can win her to his will when he encounters her in human form in a later court scene.
Katrina Lyndon is a splendidly gauche, inappropriately dressed Girlfriend who entertains the audience with her excellent comic timing as an actress as well as a dancer. When she sits in the Royal Box at a theatre performance, she shows no awareness of court etiquette and deeply offends the Queen. The performance the party watch is a parody of a ballet which includes a moustachioed Wood Cutter in yellow tights who is very amusing. Comedy runs in a rich vein throughout this production though it is eventually displaced by a powerful tragic conclusion.
The choreographed movement of the company of male swans is particularly impressive. An extended arm becomes the neck and beak of a swan, two arms extended become flapping wings or clasped behind the back are wings at rest. Different patterns of movement are explored, some including the whole group or, as with the dance of the little swans, smaller groups are given the opportunity to present their skills. But always the dangerous character of the swans is on display, no more so than in the final tragic moments of the performance.
The effect of Bourne’s Swan Lake has been to revolutionise modern ballet, in very much the same way that Peter Brook’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1970 revolutionised approaches to Shakespeare. This remarkable production is a modern classic and should not be missed.