On March 16th I went with my husband and sister to see Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake at the Hippodrome in Bristol. It was our first time at a classical ballet! The tickets were part of a special birthday weekend for my sister whose dream was to go to a ballet. If I had not bought them for her, I doubt very much whether I would have bought them at all! Theatre, film, musicals – I love them all but ballet had never held any special interest for me. What I was part of on that particular evening was one of the funniest, passionate, poignant theatrical experiences that I have ever been a part of.
I deliberately say theatrical experience because that’s what it felt like, there was a complex, dark storyline, well-developed characters dressed in the most fabulous costumes, a lavish stage set, clever, atmospheric lighting and the most beautiful, spell binding music. The dancing did not confine itself to ballet but used stylish, choreographic techniques taken from a huge range of dance styles with much of it based on contemporary dance.
For those of you unfamiliar with Matthew Bourne or Sir Matthew Bourne since 2016 when he was awarded a knighthood for his services to dance, Bourne is the most popular and successful British choreographer and artistic director of a dance company called New Adventures. He is known for his radical reinterpretation of classic ballets such as Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker and the Red Shoes. In the case of Swan Lake, Bourne breaks with the tradition that love in ballets only occurs between men and women and presents us with a picture of fierce and tender male love.
Bourne’s Swan Lake was first staged at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London in 1995 and is the longest running ballet in London’s West End and on Broadway. It won the 1996 Laurence Olivier Award for the best new dance production. Two years later it opened on Broadway, and Bourne won Tony Awards for direction and choreography. It has to date won thirty international awards and Bourne was awarded his eighth Olivier Award in 2019, this time the Special Award in recognition of his extraordinary achievements in dance. He is now the joint holder of the most ever Oliviers along with the great Dame Judi Dench.
When the announcement came that it was to be screened in cinemas worldwide I was delighted that I would be able to see it at the Curzon.
Of course, I knew the story of Swan Lake and the hopeless love of Prince Siegfried and Princess Odette but nothing could have prepared me for the intricately choreographed, gripping, powerful 21st-century interpretation of this classic ballet. It was truly a sumptuous feast for the eyes and the ears.
The role of Princess Odette trapped by a curse as a swan in the original ballet is transformed into a tormented, vulnerable male Prince from a contemporary, dysfunctional family. The all-female corps de ballet is replaced by a virile, menacing male ensemble, a move which at the time took the dance world by storm. In one of his interviews, Bourne talks about audiences walking out when the Prince and the Swan start dancing together and some people refusing to see it all. Times have indeed changed.
There are a total of seven scenes in Act 1 and these opening scenes which take place at the palace, a seedy nightclub and the opera are packed with humour and introduce the characters and the narrative – the key narrative focuses on a lonely, repressed modern-day prince bound by the conventions of royal protocol and manipulated by his unfeeling mother, the ambitious courtiers and the Machiavellian Private Secretary. In this act we see him humiliated in a night club and forced to break up with his girlfriend by his overbearing mother who is at all times cold and aloof toward him.
Act 2 sees the troubled Prince in the park contemplating suicide, he is about to throw himself in the lake when a Swan glides across the water, shortly followed by a flock of thirteen. Bourne spent hours watching swans in parks and on film in order to capture their essence and to be able to reproduce their movements in his choreography.
The bare-chested, barefooted Swans are covered in white make-up. Their eyes are highlighted in black as well as a triangle of black from the crown of the head to the bridge of the nose suggesting the markings on a swan’s head and beak. They wear a pair of deep-waisted, knee-length pantaloons, made with layers of shredded chiffon that resemble feathers and suggest a swan’s plumage.
The illusion of a swan is completed as soon as they start to dance. From the moment they appear on the stage, they are absolutely mesmerising – the armography is a sight to behold. (thank you Strictly!) Their rippling muscles and sensuous, undulating arm movements which extend and mirror the wingspan of this elegant bird are stunning as is the shaping which changes their arms and hands into slender necks and beaks. Their aggressive elegance, their rolling head movements, their strength which makes them appear to hover when they leap, transform them into swans before our very eyes! This was definitely one of my most favourite parts of the show – I think I held my breath for the whole act! I was so immersed in what I was feeling that I forgot to clap!
Act 3 takes us back to the Palace and the scene is that of a Royal Ball which oozes sexual tension. A Stranger arrives clad in black leather. (this is the same dancer that plays the swan) He smokes, downs shots and dances provocatively and promiscuously; he shows a particular interest in the Queen. The Prince looks on jealously and recognises something about the Stranger, the tension mounts, the tempo increases, the dancers switch partners until the prince and stranger “accidentally” end up together in a frenzied homo-erotic dance.
The Stranger continues to cavort, the Prince falls and is mocked and jeered by the other guests while the Stranger looks on. The Prince becomes more and more distressed, produces a gun and kills a member of the Court. He suffers a breakdown and is taken for treatment at an asylum.
In Act 4 the closing act, the distraught Prince, in absolute turmoil, paces the floor of the asylum room where he is now confined. He is being treated by a doctor and a team of nurses wearing masks that resemble the Queen’s face. He crawls into bed and there follows a nightmare scene where the swans emerge from under the bed. Sweat drips from their backs as they dance all around him. They mount the bed, they sniff at him – every movement of the hissing, stamping, stomping Swans is menacing. He awakes from his nightmare and his jerky dance movements and torturous expressions reflect the tremendous pain he is in. The lead Swan emerges from his bed………
I’m not going to say more about this final act except that it is the most achingly beautiful, dramatic piece of theatre that I have ever seen and if you haven’t seen it then you are really missing out. As the saying goes ‘It’s the stuff of legends.’
At the end there was a five minute standing ovation.