IT’S ALMOST 25 years since the ‘enfant terrible’ of the ballet world – Matthew Bourne premiered his groundbreaking and provocative version of the ballet ‘Swan Lake’.
With its head-line grabbing all-male swans, at the time it was both celebrated and derided for shaking up the classical ballet world forever.
This new production by Bourne’s company ‘New Adventures’ at Birmingham Hippodrome has lost none of that original daring, whilst gaining a maturity and polish that firmly establishes it as a truly legendary ballet.
Whether you are a ballet buff or have never been before, this is a stunning not-to-be-missed production that truly deserved the unanimous standing ovation it received.
The basic story – Prince falls in love with a girl who, through a sorcerer’s trick, is a swan by day and takes human form by night – is all there, except that this swan is male and a figment of the prince’s tortured mind that becomes ever more real as we watch his descent into despair.
The show opens with the prince in bed having a nightmare in which he sees a fearsome swan looming over him. His mother the Queen is awoken by his cries, but she is a remote figure and refuses to offer him the motherly comfort he craves. In a comedic and beautifully staged scene, we see this pampered, unhappy prince forced to accompany his mother on a round of openings, ship launchings and statue unveilings.
The prince is expected to find a suitable bride, but instead pursues a vivacious ‘Pretty Woman’ girl with a penchant for inappropriate dress. In a brilliant pastiche of the overly-romanticised ballets of the past, we see the royal party watching from their theatre box with the prince’s girlfriend hilariously making every possible faux pas, to the obvious dismay of the haughty Queen – she even tries to get to take a ‘selfie’ on her mobile phone. We also become aware of the Prince’s minder referred to in the programme as Private Secretary.
After once again being rejected by his mother, a drunken prince finds himself in a seedy nightclub, complete with a well-worn erotic dancer. He spots his girlfriend and tries to dance with her, but she rejects him too and the bouncers throw him out into the street. The girlfriend comes after him but is intercepted by the Private Secretary who thrusts money into her hands to buy her off.
The Prince meanwhile is in complete desolation – he once again ‘sees’ a swan (in a stunning piece of animation) and follows it to the lake where he decides to end his life by throwing himself in. However, the swan and his ‘corps de ballet’ flock appear. These swans are visceral, macho and sexy males, vying for position within flock. You can hear them hissing and grunting and see the sweat glistening on their torso as they dance.
The prince is entranced and eventually is accepted as a partner by the lead swan as they perform a startling and moving Pas de Deux. As dawn breaks and the swans melt away, the Prince has found the love he craves and so tears up his suicide note.
The royal palace is the setting for a grand ball where princesses from across Europe are vying for the attention of the prince. Traditionally, the ballroom scene is an opportunity for the principle dancers to show off their prowess with increasingly impressive pirouettes and grande jetes; here we have equally impressive dancing descending into debauchery with the arrival of a stranger dressed in black leather and bearing a striking resemblance to the swan.
The women in the room are entranced and vie for his attention, but it is the Queen whom he seduces, much to the despair of the prince. Driven into a frenzy, he shoots at the swan, but hits instead his former girlfriend. The prince is taken away to a cell-like room where he is treated by a strange doctor and nurses that all resemble his mother. Eventually, he is back in his own over-sized bed where we found him at the beginning.
His distant mother does not know how to comfort him and leaves as his final terror begins; he imagines swans coming out of the bed – and indeed they are! His swan-lover appears, battle-scared and weak as his flock turn on him, eventually killing him – and hence the prince as he finally succumbs to the madness. The final image is breath taking – both poignant and triumphant.
Beyond the attention-grabbing all-male swans, Bourne sticks to the traditional ballet format; Tchaikovsky’s wonderful score with its signature themes is all there – the famous Pas de Deux and Corps de Ballet scenes are reimagined in a new and powerful way. The dancing in this production cannot be faulted – impeccable timing, energy and discipline. The staging is superb with ingenious oversized sets and beautiful costumes all designed by Lez Brotherston and clever animation by Duncan Mclean that combine seamlessly to take us inside the prince’s tortured mind.
As with traditional ballet, the cast revolves with different principles for each performance but undoubtedly the stars of the show are the Prince and The Swan.
Telling a story without words takes genius – this production is just that.
A ‘Simply Spectacular Swan Lake’
Swan Lake is at the Hippodrome until Saturday, February 16.
For more information, times and tickets, visit https://www.birminghamhippodrome.com/calendar/matthew-bournes-swan-lake/
Review by Euan Rose