Matthew Bourne’s convention-shattering ‘Swan Lake’ returns to the stage with a production updated for the 21st century, respective of advancing times and, with it, changing societal attitudes and acceptances. Performed by the dancers of New Adventures to the timeless score of Tchaikovsky, with set and costume design by Lez Brotherston, this pertinent production continues to exceed audience expectation.
The ballet’s opening act introduces us to the young Prince as he goes about his royal duties with his mother the Queen who, in between christening boats, cutting ribbons and handing out medals, seems to be more taken with a group of soldiers than with the task at hand. Found wanting maternal affection, our Prince later takes to the bottle, and we get a sense of their dysfunctional relationship when he throws himself at his mother in an aggressive pas-de-deux, while she pushes him away, distancing herself. The Prince then finds himself at Swank Bar – a jazz-style venue with neon signs and vibrant lighting and costume, Bourne’s upbeat choreography cleverly suited to Tchaikovsky’s classic score, showcasing the versatility of the New Adventures’ dancers. The Prince is kicked out of the Bar, and Paparazzi clamour to take photos, to expose the flaws of this royal character, which helps humanise him to audiences to recognise his need to lead a ‘normal’ lifestyle.
Dominic North’s Prince is a beautifully conflicted character. At what is an important part of his life, a time in which he is still coming to terms with his sexuality, he is completely captivated by visions of The Swan. The Prince lives a somewhat difficult life, burdened by a life in the spotlight, by a life in which he must do what is expected of him. This is a character bound, repressed, by expectation, by duty, by responsibility, and by social convention, is trapped in a gilded cage. An entrapment that leaves him feeling suicidal. Perhaps in these swans, in The Swan, he spies the freedom that he longs for, and has possibly come to associate with these swans. In North’s solos, we see this existential turmoil that he faces, and longs to be free of. His performance is pitched with a delicacy and, confused and tormented, the character’s mental fragility asserts itself in North’s soft and gentle movement. However, in moments of inner turmoil, we see writhing fits of convulsion, as the character is haunted by the visions of these swans, by visions of the freedom he cannot possess.
Will Bozier’s Swan is breathtakingly mesmeric. His movement executed with great technical precision, the audience is as captivated by him as is the Prince. Before the production begins, a gentle blue screen hangs in front of the stage, upon which is the silhouette of a black swan. When the music strikes up, this swan begins to flap his mighty wings, not only boasting of the beauty, but warning of the power, of these magnificent birds. When the screen is lifted, Bozier’s Swan stands atop the bed of the Prince, flapping his mighty wings. Immediately, Bozier captures the might of these creatures, and their sense of movement. In Act III, Bozier attends the Grand Ball as The Stranger, swapping the iconic white-trousered plumage for black leather trousers and whip. Here, the primal qualities of his Swan rule his performance, as he dances with raw animal magnetism, in keeping with the scene’s sensuality. His performance is grounded in a swan-like majesty – elegant and poised, but powerful, and potentially dangerous. There is a fierce fluidity to his movement, soft when necessary, but when not, sharp and cutting. Yet, however sharp and powerful his performance, his movement is gently underlined with a sensitivity, that ultimately prevails.
There is a stirring tenderness to the chemistry between North’s Prince and Bozier’s Swan. The choreography in Acts II and IV ensure there are moments of sweeping interaction between the two, with several lifts, as they support one another. Notably, their choreography intermittently sees them dancing in canon, and then in unison. Initially, Bozier’s Swan takes the lead, the Prince following a step behind, as though the Prince is trying desperately to imitate the Swan, in order to capture some measure of the freedom the Swan enjoys. At other times, the Prince would catch up, and the two would perform the same steps at the same time, as the Prince becomes able to express himself freely, giving him an overwhelming sense of relief. Their duets are touching and poetic and, against the calm blue tones of the lighting design, and the pale, quieter sets, stripped back from the grandeur of the court, are given a raw purity.
The bevy of male swans, when all assembled on stage, are visually striking – impressive to behold. The effect of their presence differs to that of the women ensemble in the classical version. While there exists an element of grace, we are constantly reminded of their capacity for violence and aggression, as menacingly they hiss and pant, their threatening sounds enhancing the mood portrayed in their movement. Their performances, are dominant and powerful, a vivid display, and subsequent assertion, of masculine strength and agility,the perfect complement to the dark and powerful tone of the ballet. We cannot forget that these birds are not tame – they are wild, as their freedom demands. Though beautiful, they are deadly.
The production is possessed by a strong and cleverly woven narrative arc, which attributes to its plot, a complexity, and to its characters, a depth. In Act I, North’s Prince, Nicole Kabera‘s genteel Queen, Katrina Lyndon‘s comic Girlfriend, and a soldier, guest of the Queen, attend the theatre, watching from their royal box situated on the right hand side of the stage, upon which a smaller theatre is borne. The production they watch is a ballet, but unlike this production, the ballet is characterised by a simple narrative thread, with characters easily categorised as protagonists and antagonists. This parody of the romantic classical ballet, of which the original Swan Lake itself is, is a straightforward example of an idealised, fairy-tale version of life, in which good triumphs over evil, and true love prevails. What Bourne does is take this element of the fairytale, but shroud it in a story weighed down with reality, naturalism, and darkness, in a story that allows for plot dimension and character development. Bourne uses this art form and, rather than simply entertain audiences with a beauty in movement for movement, something purely kinetic, he grounds it in a version of life that audiences of today will recognise. His characters, far from the stereotypical classic characters, we see these rounded, three-dimensional, flawed, dysfunctional and ultimately, very human characters, that more readily speak to us today.
Raw, gritty, dark and powerful, this legendary production of Swan Lake has firmly established itself as a modern classic in the cannon of contemporary dance, and continues to achieve standing ovations with its unparalleled emotional weight and extraordinary capacity for storytelling.