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Swan Lake ☆☆☆☆☆

Dance Theatre

Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake 

Music: Pyotr Tchaikovsky

Choreography: Matthew Bourne

Sadler’s Wells Theatre

Director: Matthew Bourne

Conductor: Brett Morris

Cast includes Jonathan Ollivier, Simon Williams, Kerry Biggin

Dates:  4 December 2013 - 26 January 2014

Performance Times:

                Tue - Sun at 7.30pm

                Tue Mats at 2.30pm on 24 & 31 Dec

                Wed Mats at 2.30pm on 18 Dec,1 & 8 Jan

                Thu Mat at 2.30pm on 26 Dec

                Sat and Sun Mats at 2.30pm

                No performance: 25 Dec, 31 Dec (7.30pm)

Running time: 2hrs 30mins including 1 interval

Review by James Holloway

13th December 2013

A spectacularly moving ballet running the gamut of emotions. An absolute "must see"

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake was introduced to the world 18 years ago and has gripped audiences ever since. While Tchaikovsky's score is original (and played superbly), the narrative and choreography are different. Don't expect ballerinas pirouetting in just the way that swans don't - thecorps is of male swans. However, contrary to popular belief, the cast is not exclusively male although many of the standard ballet tropes are inverted. In Bourne's own words, this is not classical ballet but contemporary dance. And it is extraordinarily good.

The narrative is much more subtle than most, richly layering allusions and metaphors. Nevertheless there is “The Prince”, a common character to all ballets - but he yearns for parental love rather than the love of a girl. The performance starts off in a light-hearted mood which serves to highlight the pathos of the message.

Bourne cleverly gives himself the opportunity to present a ballet within a ballet. The set consists of a miniature stage and a miniature royal box all, together with a short parody of classical ballet (something anodyne involving butterflies and dryads - look out for their fantastic costumes). This is a witty critique of both the genre and the theatre-going public.

Reinforcing the fact that this piece is contemporary dance, there follows a 70s pastiche of glitter, drainpipe trousers, and sexual liberty. The setting is a neon-lit nightclub of dubious repute and the dancers engage in a raunchy jive routine. Bourne manages to roll humour, despair, anger, danger, and flirtation into one garish scene.

The plot now darkens considerably, with the prince contemplating suicide. In a gothic parkland set of full moon and bare branches the swans make their first appearance. Famously, these swans are danced by men wearing only fluffy white down trousers.

Bourne emphasises the formidable power of the swan's physique over its elegance. His choreography, together with ill-tempered hissing, enhances the beastlike nature of the bird. The effect is astonishing, and there follow set pieces allowing the audience to adapt to this reinvention. The lead swan (realised brilliantly by Jonathan Ollivier) is the analogue of Odette in various ways.

While many still find the level of homoeroticism here hard to accept, I would argue that this is the wrong interpretation. These swans are a fabrication of the prince's mind, filling the hole left by his mother's emotional distance.

The Odette/Odile analogy continues in Act 3 at a high-society ball. A very alpha-male stranger dressed in black pitches up, danced by the same artist who brings the lead swan to life. His function is to destroy the prince’s mind and the evil stranger eventually goes off with the queen, further removing any hope of the prince receiving attention from his mother.

The asylum scene is intelligently lit. Against a white wall the silhouettes of nurses are magnified by very bright lights, neatly portraying the paranoia of a profoundly unsettled mind. A combination of synchronous dancing and identical masks conveys the notion that everyone is conspiring against the prince.

One cannot escape the raw power of Tchaikovsky’s apotheosis. As the music broadens and the backdrop fades into the night sky, it is somehow more moving that the prince and the lead swan die at the hands (or beaks) of all the other swans. This is true tragedy, the more so because the ballet directs our anger towards the realities of mental illness rather some contrived “evil sorcerer”.

This ballet is not the sort of thing a young girl taking her first steps in ballet would understand - and it is certainly not what she would expect. Yet the journey is astonishingly powerful and is highly recommended to everyone else.

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