Swan Lake

Choreographed by Matthew Bourne
Back Row Productions in association with New Adventures
Sadler's Wells
(2006)

Production photo

To discover the real impact of Matthew’s Bourne’s Swan Lake on the evolution of ballet go along to Sadler’s Wells’ Saturday matinee and talk to some of the teenagers whose teachers have had the foresight to make a group booking.

If you ask them to compare it with the traditional version they frown and shake their heads. You mean there’s another one?

And then it dawns.

They don’t know!

To them this production is Swan Lake. Forget the vast corps de ballets in their floating romantic tutus ( fewer than twenty-four really was cutting it fine) gliding across the stage on pointe and crowding defensively around their queen when Prince Siegfried appears with his little toy crossbow. Forget the black swan’s thirty-two fouettés which caused some trepidation even to the great Fonteyn.

And if you’ve ever watched a frieze of wooden swans make their way jerkily across the back of the stage at the end of a performance, try to forget those as well.

I suppose most of us first came across the Matthew Bourne Swan Lake from that quick glimpse in the Billy Elliot film. Male swans? Hm. It stirred our interest. But it takes some effort to prise us devotees away from Marius Petipa’s original version. Are we really that far from its birth? In Russia? In 1895? Difficult to credit. Suddenly we feel old and rather tired.

So we give it a try – the last week before it goes on tour – in January 2005, a Sunday afternoon, would you believe, and are completely enchanted, only a tiny bit sad that this Swan Lake must inevitably push the traditional one off its perch with one sweep of its powerful wings.

And now, almost two years later, we welcome it back. Prince Siegfried, no longer a mere useful support for Odette’s more spectacular arabesques, or the stop button to her pirouettes, is the central character. He is, in fact, Odette. He has her musical themes and commands all our emotion. In the original, Odette has been turned into a swan by the evil magician Rothbart. Bourne has given Siegfried other misfortunes. Rejected by his royal mother and ill at ease among the ceremonial and pretentiousness of the court, his only friend is an unsuitable girl whose gaucheness leads her to shake the queen vigorously by the hand and allow her mobile phone to interrupt a painfully comic pastiche of late nineteenth century balletic style.

In his alienation and despair, Siegfried seeks some lowlife diversion in Swanks, described in the programme as a ‘seedy club’ where we discover with some surprise that Tchaikovsky’s score lends itself to modern dance of the kind more generally found in present-day discos. Disillusioned by the experience and his girlfriend’s betrayal, Siegfried leaves the brightly lit club and finds, in the city park, his true home among the swans. And with the swans, he finally discovers real happiness and fulfillment.

All the most evocative themes are here. The corps de ballet’s grand ensemble pieces, the waltzes and the heartbreakingly poignant pas de deux, danced to a solo violin accompaniment, lose none of their effect through being performed by young men rather than girls. Then there’s the little swans’ pas de quatre, less camp than in the 2005 production, but sharper, funnier and even more dynamic. Yet these are not soft cuddly swans, the sort you’d want to take to bed with you. Fourteen muscular young men with bare feet fill the stage with their energy and draw the prince into their circle.

And when the swans’ leader becomes the Odile figure, the black swan, the evil force who will turn the flock against Siegfried, eventually leading to the prince’s destruction, you can believe the stories. You don’t mess with these babies. Break your arm? That’s the least they’ll do.

No one does tragedy better than Tchaikovsky, so we mourn the dead Siegfried, and his alter ego, the lead swan, chest feathers bloodied in the fight to defend the prince, and the audience grope for their tissues.

But can I have a whinge here? And it’s not about the production, but about the audience. Why must they interrupt the music by breaking into applause every time there’s a pause in the action? They wouldn’t do it after a tricky cadenza at a symphony concert, would they? Okay. Moan over.

The Matthew Bourne Swan Lake has been going now for eleven years, increasing in both scope and popularity. After its London run it transfers to Australia, where its welcome will be ecstatic.

But will it ever become a real classic? Can it ever really replace the established Swan Lake of our childhood memories?

According to the girls waiting for their friends outside the Ladies at Sadler’s Wells on Saturday afternoon, it already has.

Running until 21st January

Reviewer: Anne Hill