Since its inception in 1995, Matthew Bourne’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake has toured worldwide, and is now the longest-running ballet on the West End and Broadway. It is widely credited with changing the face of British dance, as it reinvents the plot of the original ballet by casting men in the place of women, giving rise to discussions of homosexuality and altering the long-standing rigidity of traditional ballet.
The show is undeniably stunning. Vast sets reminiscent of German art films, a pleasingly monochrome costume palette, and dancers’ fluidity, hint at weeks of work from all involved. Bourne’s choreography is excellent, mixing contemporary unpredictability with the grace of ballet. Of particular note are the swans’ iconic feather-trousers. That they dance barefoot adds an animalistic dimension, as this crosses the line from simply imitating swanlike movements, to fully embodying the animals’ demeanour.
This evening, the lead roles were danced by Will Bozier, Dominic North, and Nicole Kabera. Bozier dominated the performance as the swan and the stranger, recognisable by his bold manner if not by his costume. North as the prince was danced with believable vulnerability, portraying his transition from despairing at the monotony of royalty, to his joy at finding freedom among the swans, and his final demise as he realises that this can exist only in dream, or death. Kabera was a richly-danced queen, striding across the stage with regal grace.
The brilliance of the production is partly due to its attention to detail, which decorates the already skilfully-woven story. Features such as the fake corgi, the bored burlesque dancer, or the girlfriend’s bubbly idiosyncrasies (Katrina Lyndon), gave real depth and substance to the tale. Lyndon’s characterisation is confusing, however. She is portrayed as something of an airhead, thanks to her blonde hair, short skirts, and coquettish manner. Yet she is rather charming in her naivety, adding a needed comic element to a quite heavy piece.
Enough credit cannot be given to the male ensemble playing the swans. They are otherworldly, emerging from the wings in a flock at once menacing and enchanting. Their dances are performed with remarkable skill, and the reversed gender casting adds to the beauty of the piece. My only criticism is their continual hissing, to imitate the (albeit intimidating) sounds of real swans. Rather than amplifying the effect, it breaks the atmosphere, making their dances reminiscent of viral swan-mobbing YouTube videos. Some additional elements also seemed out of place, such as Bozier’s use of a riding crop in his ballroom dance.
Praise for this production invariably mentions the homosexual dimension of the story, and this is clearly seen here. The prince and the swan have undeniable chemistry, and their pas de deux is performed with captivating beauty. There is an awesome magic in seeing two men dance a duet traditionally performed by a man and a woman; the visual contrast between North’s slight frame and Bozier’s broad shoulders also creates a striking effect sure to remain in the minds of the audience. Despite this homoerotic relationship, however, there is little explicit confirmation by the production that we are witnessing a gay narrative. It simply isn’t enough for Bourne to mention that it might be homosexual and expect his audience to fill the gaps. Further, I was frustrated by the perpetuation of the ‘gay death’ trope, wherein queer characters are only united in death, as their love cannot be a reality.
I was also somewhat disappointed by the lack of a live orchestra. This is an iconic piece, both for its effects on modern dance, and for its timeless storyline, and so dancing to pre-recorded music is a let-down.
That being said, I was still transported by the show. It is danced with spectacular talent, and much credit must go to Bourne for his challenges to conventions of dance. It is a delight to watch, both playful and heart-wrenching, and will remain with you far beyond the theatre doors.
PHOTOS: Johan Persson