Matthew Bourne’s company is back at Sadler’s Wells this month, with its award winning production of Swan Lake. An expected box office sell-out for the theatre that housed the premiere in 1995, and an exciting opportunity for dance lovers to see again the show that once took London by storm.
Some call it modern ballet, others a musical theatre adaptation. I wonder, is it dance theatre? Actually, none of this shilly-shallying really matters. On the back of its raging success, Swan Lake, alongside other story-ballet shows - Nutcracker! Highland Fling, The Car Man - becomes its own entity, stamped as the Matthew Bourne signature piece.
The original story of Swan Lake is, to keep things short and sweet, a dramatic narrative of love and despair. Prince Siegfried, reluctant to choose a suited lady to marry, questions his identity, inherent royal duties and purpose. In a bid to distract himself, he goes hunting and ends up falling in love with Odette, a graceful swan that morphs back into the body of a woman at night. After promising to love her forever, and thus vowing to save her from the spell keeping her in her half-swan-half-human state, he naively gets seduced by a suave Odette-like vision, the malignant lustful Odile. In light of his betrayal, he chooses to die with Odette, rather than live a desolate life without her.
This tale has kept us intrigued, curious and inspired since the Bolshoi’s first production in 1877. Re-staged by the most illustrious ballet choreographers, revisited by Mats Ek in 1985, and more recently adapted on screen in Black Swan by Hollywood director Darren Aronofsky, the myth that is Swan Lake is not just fascinating, but multi-faceted.
For his own creation, Matthew Bourne carried forward some of its distinctive features, notably, the Tchaikovsky score, which he plays with extremely well. If you have never seen the original ballet, you might assume this score was specially created for the Bourne production. There is no glitch in the transposition, nor in the dancers’ interpretation – the current cast not only lends the piece a delicate ear, but plays with the score’s many levels with precision and finesse. The prince is still a leading actor of the story, and his characteristic inadequacy is featured from the start. Simon Williams’ boyish charm makes him a great contender for the role, and he plays with the conflicting emotions of a young boy trapped in a man’s body with ease and conviction. His performance – at the beginning naïve, short tempered – evolves with him. His character’s journey is clear in his dance, which has a maturing movement quality. He becomes more lyrical, more legato, as the story enfolds, and William’s metamorphosis is carefully timed with the coming-of-age of his character. The sensitive, fragile nature of Bourne’s Prince is exacerbated by the frigid, icy manner in which Michaela Meazza performs the contrasting role of the Queen. She is sharp, focused, authoritative and powerfully unyielding.
Humour is always present in Bourne’s work, and the Prince-Queen duet is explicitly satirical. The touch of quirkiness portrayed by The Girlfriend that had such effect on me the first time didn’t entertain me quite as much this time around. The humour clearly lies – in part – in the effect of surprise. But also, arguably in the misplacement of the character – imagine a tacky, graceless, bordeline chav-like girl, landing in a Sloaney’s party – her gawky nature was rendered by Kerry Biggin with sweetness and candour.
The ensemble – both as party guests, unashamedly critical towards their prince who they seem to think of as a lost soul, a disgrace, and as the press, eager to snap a good piece of royal gossip – complete the implicitly caricatured and quintessentially, well, British picture that Bourne brings to the stage.
Of course, the singular element of this production is his use of an all male cast to dance the swans. Grace and beauty are still present in the transposition of act 2 but in the epilogue scene, the swans’ true nature transpires. They are predators: muscular, mean, violent. Jonathan Ollivier’s interpretation of the lead Swan is spine tingling: he seduced and then he hurt me, just like he seduced then hurt the Prince. His stature, control, and imposing force transported me into the nightmare of the epilogue. The flock destroys the poor lost soul that is the Prince, him who desperately wants to fit in, to join the group, to belong. The violent flock turns, eventually, against its leader. Outweighed by their number, the bully becomes the victim. Although he shows remorse, there is no salvation for him. Nor, of course, for the poor Prince.
There has been much debate over the relationship between the prince and the Swan, and as to whether Bourne’s Swan Lake talks of homosexuality. I personally think to dwell on such matter is simply irrelevant, the Prince’s infatuation with the Swan – the embodiment of everything he is not – is, ultimately, the expression of his pain, and manifestation of his desperate need to be accepted. Like all of us, he is only yearning for love.