Back Row Productions & Sadler’s Wells present
A New Adventures production
Photo by Bill Cooper
Music by Pyotr Iiyich Tchaikovsky
Director and Choreographer – Matthew Bourne
Set and Costume Design – Lez Brotherston
Lighting Design - Rick Fisher
10 December 2009 – 24 January 2010
A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!
Productions of Swan Lake, oft a staple of seasonal programmes are generally, as predictable as the phases of the moon. However Matthew Bourne’s production of the seminal ballet, featuring his individualistic choreography and expansive point of view, offers a unique slant on the well-seasoned classic, one which is just as compelling as it is distinctly original. The main point of departure in Bourne’s Swan Lake is of course, that his entrancing swans are all unmistakably male, as opposed to demurely female.
The ballet begins with the choreography of a nightmare as Prince Siegfried tosses in his royal bed beneath the shadow of a seemingly, giant swan, writing in the window above. It is a sensational opening and one completely different to what non-Bourne ballet goers are accustomed to, as more well -trodden versions of the ballet begin with the birthday party of the dreamy prince in the gardens of his palace, surrounded by well-wishers. The open minded, as well as the Bourne faithful are immediately intrigued, and so they’ll stay for the duration, as one imaginatively realised scene after another, each toppling it’s classical counterpart, rapturously unfolds, firing audience imaginations.
And it is not just the art of dance which is revitalised by Bourne’s imaginative renderings, for when synched with his expansive choreography, the score itself assumes a whole new set of connotations, many of them even more mythic than in classical versions of the ballet, though no less foreboding. However, there is something of the beauty and power of youth in Tchaikovsky’s haunting score of Swan Lake and this is an element of the ballet which Bourne and his swans make the most of, moving with passionate fervour through their mysterious landscape, drawing such rapt attention from the audience that viewers collectively begin to lose sight of the fact that this is a performance on a stage, certainly a milestone for ballet, as Bourne draws on his own love of dance, enabling those watching, whatever their previous levels of familiarity or expertise with ballet to be able to share his passion.
Each part of this four act ballet seems more striking than the one before, though, without giving anything away, by the end of it, as if via karmic circling, we are brought back to where we began. Christopher Marney performed the role of the Prince the night we were in attendance and his youthful longing and confusion were quite touching, and his dancing expressive to the point that it enabled one to be swiftly carried along with his ever-changing moods and circumstances. His counterpart Richard Winsor was simply astounding as The Swan, performing his role with a wild-edged sense of creature like majesty, taking into account that in the traditional version of the ballet, his swan would have, in reality been a human being under an enchantment. Winsor is equally elegant, though more openly menacing and punishingly seductive as The Stranger who appears at a party Prince Siegfried’s mother throws to celebrate, in this case, seemingly, her dominance over her son and the partygoers rather than the arranged engagement of the Prince, which does not occur in Bourne’s Swan Lakian world. The Stranger not only upsets Prince Siegfried, but he also ignites the predatory toy-boy seeking tendencies of his beautiful, aging mother. New Yorker Nina Goldman is absolutely dazzling and, terrifyingly powerful as The Queen, a role she appears to relish more and more with every costume change. The red and black gown she wears in the party scene is eye-catching, not just for its full-skirted 1950’s styling, but also for its red and black fascist colour scheme, which commands attention in a sea of black dresses and suits. Last, but certainly not least, Chloe Wilkinson injects humour and down to earthness in her role of a lowly gold-digger with a relentless beat on Prince Siegfried, who continually irritates the Queen with her ‘commonness.’ Wilkinson’s naturalistic body language and outrageously inappropriate Sex in the City hair and costume work wonders in a hilariously enacted scene set in the Royal box at the Opera, which also features a spectacularly naff ‘ballet within a ballet.’
The value of Lez Brotherston’s designs of both set and costumes to this production is inestimable, as it enables full realisation, not just of the world of the performers, but also of their characters as well via specifically tailored clothing and accoutrements. In conjunction with Bourne’s magnificently unpretentious, well-observed direction and choreography, the characters don’t just exhibit tendencies, they move and/or dance their way through them, becoming as alive to their audiences as they have been to their creator, Matthew Bourne. Similarly, Rick Fisher’s finely realised lighting design heightens tension or effectively eases it as each scene requires, lavishly highlighting and intermingling both the underbellies of Tchaikovsky and Bourne’s intents.
Bourne’s choreography, which seems boundary free to those of us who’ve only seen Swan Lake in its traditional form, is joyously freeing to watch, and seems so for his dancers as well, who are able to showcase their abilities, and their own love of dance in the extreme through it. Having previously enjoyed Bourne’s versions of that otherTchaikovskyfavourite, The Nutcracker and his bittersweet Edward Scissorhands, and been won over by both, I was nonetheless, unprepared for the rapturous capacities of his Swan Lake. A gripping scene in which the prince literally grapples with his mother/son issues with The Queen via a physical and emotional duet that is more like a duel, the likes of which you’ve never seen in ballet before, was just one of this production’s many memorable highlights.
The inaugural production of Bourne’s imagining of Swan Lake, destined, he initially thought, for a two week run at Sadler's Wells, followed by a UK tour, premiered in 1995. However, his vision of the ballet subsequently toured extensively, becoming a worldwide success, taking Broadway by storm in 1998. The stunning incarnation now at Sadler's Wells is the first to feature any changes of note instigated by Bourne since the ballet's ‘98 Broadway run, though, as he assures in the programme, it is one which also remains true to the original, for he is keenly aware of the production’s protective, reverential fans. In addition to what Bourne refers to as choreographic ‘tightening’, this production’s humour has been ‘toned down’ and its ‘drama heightened’.
The Conductor, who was unrecognisable from any of the programme photos, did an impressively commanding job of bringing out the nuances in Tchaikovsky’s breath-taking score via the musicians in his orchestra and bows taken by him on his and, their behalf at curtain calls were well deserved.
As a viewer enjoying Matthew Bourne’s riveting Swan Lake for the very first time, I must add, as a last word, that it has happily, spoiled me for traditional versions of the ballet forevermore.
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