Beautiful, Bold and Brilliant: Forget Tchaikovsky, Swan Lake is Bourne’s Ballet

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I popped my ballet cherry last night. Having never seen any live ballet (except years ago when a student danced beautifully en pointe in an English lesson as part of a presentation), I didn’t really know what to expect. Added to that, I was totally ignorant of the story, too. But, do you know what? None of that mattered. At all.

From the moment the curtain raised on Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, I was transported. The storytelling was excellent, and the dancers were incredible. The theme of duality is explored in so many ways, and the audience is left with two complementing interpretations of what’s actually going on in the narrative. Is the prince going mad? Are the Swan and the Stranger merely two interpretations of the opposing side of his mind and sexuality? Or is this an actual, real life love affair with a tortured ending? The beauty of this performance is that you actually don’t need to make that decision; it’s all there.

The set and costuming is straight out of a contemporary romantic fairytale – with echoes of those films about royal families from imaginary European countries where the heroes are all inexplicably English. The initial domestic story of distant mother (a brilliantly frosty performance), insecure son and out of place new girlfriend (whose lack of understanding of royal protocol generated by far the most laughter from the audience) soon gives way to a broader feeling of frustration and malaise, by way of a ballet-within-a-ballet and a great scene at a seedy club with the world’s laziest stripper (a role that was brilliantly physical and so, so funny).

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This setup makes the contrast with the swans all the more powerful when they do arrive. And boy, do they arrive. The Prince, driven to despair by the rigid demands of his role and lack of affection from his mother, as well as being dumped by his girlfriend, contemplates suicide by the lake, only to be distracted by a company of swans. The ensuing encounter, wary, antagonistic, passionate and eventually unifying, changes his life forever. The dance is aggressive, primal, masterful and dominant; everything a swan flipping well should be. The dancers bring these creatures to life with almost impossibly synchronised contortions (down to the shared breaths) and a rampant physicality that is always expressive, never over the top. I adored the unquestionable masculinity of the choreography, and the contrast between the intensity of the group of swans’ courtship of the Prince and the brief, lighter interludes of the younger cygnets with their cocksure, strutty moves, like teenagers on a night out. All oozed charisma and dominance. The dance of love between the Swan and the Prince is incandescent with chemistry, with the two male dancers vying for control and finding a beautiful and elegant synchronicity.

Screen Shot 2019-03-16 at 18.42.09The central performances of the Prince and the Swan/Stranger are electrifying. The stage feels like it’s going to ignite, the drama is so intense. The interweaving narrative conceits of love affair and duality of the mind leave the audience unsettled, electrified and enthralled, especially when the Stranger takes centre stage at the start of Act 2. Is he the Swan brought to human life? A doppelganger? A manifestation of the Prince’s tortured mind made flesh?

The ensemble scenes here are magnetic; the ‘bring it’ of the female dancers in response to the lead-with-the-hips bravado of the males works brilliantly. It’s less a courtship, more of a siege as the Stranger works his way through the princesses, eventually absconding with the Queen. On his return, the lights change and his seduction of the Prince begins. And as with the pair’s dance in the previous act, when the Stranger is the Swan, it’s intoxicating. The waves of tortured desire coming from the Prince are palpable in every move he makes, and the Stranger counters this with unashamed, blatant, heated sexuality. The two are spellbinding.

In the final scenes (after a heartbreaking sanatorium scene which could, in some senses, be read as a sort of gay conversion electro shock therapy), the Prince lies drugged in his bed, and the swans return. Once again the dual narrative weaves its magic as the Swan is injured and dying, and eventually turned on by his company. Are the Swan and the Prince the two sides of a single psyche, which, through the shock therapy have both been irrevocably damaged, or are they two lovers, who, much like swans, partner for life and literally cannot live without each other? The beauty of Matthew Bourne’s reimagining of this story is that both versions are true, and the layers of the narrative are in perfect synchronicity.

In a final, heartbreaking coda, the Swan and the Prince are seen together in a back projection in the mirror above the royal bed. This was the bit where I cried. Again, the concept of duality is played beautifully here; the Prince’s mind is reunited and at peace in death, and also the lovers are brought back together, too. I cannot recommend this production highly enough; it was utterly breathtaking, and I adored every minute.

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