This is a Swan Lake for both those who know the work inside out, and those who have never seen it before. The former group will marvel at the clever ways in which Matthew Bourne, dubbed Britain’s most popular choreographer, has adapted the original story to make it more relevant to us today. Those with no prior knowledge will simply be whisked along by the exciting plot, created through the numerous twists and turns that Bourne has written into it.
Swan Lake normally tells of a prince who falls in love with a princess who has been transformed into a swan by an evil magician. In this version, which is set broadly in the modern day and features ballet-influenced contemporary dance, the Swan (Jonathan Ollivier) is a man who appears in the Prince’s dreams, or the park during his late night wanderings. Whether he is entirely an image created by the Prince (Simon Williams) or has some existence in his own right hardly matters, but clearly the Prince’s state of mind is affected by his status. In direct contrast to the magic of his encounters with the Swan, his days are spent attending official engagements, all the while overseen by a repressive mother (Michela Meazza) who can never face the fact that he is gay.
This is not the only Matthew Bourne work that endeavours to weave a tangible plotline into every moment, and while overall this helps us to engage with the piece, not every attempt in this direction works. Writing a ‘play within a play’ into Act One marginalises the Prince (even though he does not normally dance that much here), thus stifling our ability to connect with him emotionally. Similarly, the antagonist changes from societal expectations in Acts One and Two (there is no Rothbart character), to a dead ringer for the Swan who prefers women in Act Three, to the other Swans in Act Four. This final switch in particular feels arbitrary (presumably they object to their leader loving a human), and does not help us to understand what the Prince has to fight against in his life.
But the unique selling point of the production, originally staged in 1995, is that all of the swans are played by men. The elegance and expressiveness of these highly skilled dancers combines with a monumentality of movement associated with the All Blacks to create a more realistic image of swans, in both their beauty and ferociousness, than is generated by en pointe dancing. The superb Dance of the Cygnets, in particular, captures the twitching, preening and flapping of the creatures while being trimly executed with a huge dose of attitude.
Until 26 January at Sadler’s Wells, Rosebery Avenue, London EC1R 4TN with start times of 14.30 and 19.30. Casts vary over the run. For further details and tickets (£12-60) visit the Sadler’s Wells website.
Londonist received a complimentary ticket and programme from Raw PR.