Review: Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 4 December 2013 - 26 January 2014
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Tuesday 17 December 2013

New Adventures - Matthew Bourne's 'Swan Lake'. Photo Bettina Strenske

Peformance reviewed: matinee, 15 December

It was seven years to the day since I had last seen Matthew Bourne’s iconic production of Swan Lake performed as the Christmas Season at Sadler’s Wells. Regularly revived around the world since it was first performed in 1995, it is contemporary dance theatre’s equivalent of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, both in terms of its monolithic presence in the landscape of dance and the fact that it is under continual maintenance. Just as that famous bridge is always being repainted from one end to the other, so Bourne and his creative team apply a facelift to their most famous asset for every new opening. It’s a fun game to try to spot subtle differences and here there seemed to be evidence of tightened choreography and a slicker flow through the first act.

I use the term “contemporary dance theatre” deliberately since I so often read (including in the programme for this show) that Bourne’s Swan Lake is the “world’s longest-running ballet production” (or similar). Well, it isn’t for several reasons; one being that it is clearly not ‘ballet’. Indeed the only time pointe shoes are worn is in a spoof theatrical ballet that takes the place of the traditional pas de trois, early in the first act. It may not be a ballet but it is one of the finest and most successful (probably in box office takings, the most successful) work in the annals of contemporary dance theatre, which is an accolade that it certainly deserves.

Bourne’s equivalent of new coats of fast-drying paint in the regular renewal of his creation is the turnover in his cast, thus bringing new interpretations to these familiar characters, which gains even more traction by the management’s tactic of mixing casts up so that different principals appear with each other during a run. On this Sunday afternoon, the crucial role of the Swan/Stranger (a cocktail of Odette/Odile and Von Rothbart in traditional terms) was played by Jonathan Ollivier, who gave many memorable narrative performances in the David Nixon repertoire for Northern Ballet. His dramatic command and powerful presence is successfully brought to bear on this crucial role, enhanced by his experience of having danced it previously. Ollivier is both sensitive and authoritative in the contrast between “white” and “black” guises. In the traditional Swan Lake ballet, directors look for a ballerina who can play both Odette and Odile with equal sincerity and Ollivier gives a balanced male perspective on how the two sides of this most complicated role can be delivered with equanimity.

The Prince is virtually ever-present throughout the performance (seven scenes have gone by before The Swan makes an appearance). Here is a young man with an oedipal mother fixation, battling the inner demons of his sexuality and confidence, and for whom every aspect of personal hygiene and sartorial decision-making is someone else’s responsibility. It’s not surprising he’s a mess and, in a subtly nuanced performance, Simon Williams conveyed the young man’s spiralling descent into madness with a deft perceptivity. There were fine supporting performances from Madelaine Brennan as The Queen and Anjali Mehra as The Girlfriend, squeezing all the comedic potential out of the early scenes before maturing into the tragic, concerned friend of the third act.

I’ve often felt that Bourne is as much evoking Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling as he is giving a new take on Swan Lake, not least in the powerful, confrontational scene between the Prince and his mother, the Queen (compare with Rudolf and the Empress in her bedchamber); on the visit to the seedy Swank Bar (Mitzi Caspar’s brothel); in the mysterious shadowy role of the Private Secretary; in the Prince causing accidental death by shooting; and in the clear parallels of the two Princes’ suicidal obsession.

The impact of Lez Brotherston’s outstanding designs is as vital as ever and the ‘film noir’ effect of shadow in Rick Fisher’s lighting designs is powerful, imbuing The Queen in her long floor-hugging gowns with a startling effect akin to the domineering Mrs Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock’s film of Rebecca. But the perennial iconic image of Bourne’s production will always be the cascading flow of fourteen male swans, wearing Brotherston’s iconic high-waisted, feathery pantaloons and marked with that demonic black inverted triangle in the middle of their foreheads. Their vicious devouring of The Swan in the final act seems to have gained even more aggression and there was a lot more bottom-biting than I recall!

The genius of the design quality is something we take for granted in this show but it was aspects of Bourne’s choreography and direction that impressed me this time around, especially in the clever way use of Tchaikovsky’s set pieces to drive the narrative along. Thus, the Act 1 waltz becomes the setting for The Prince’s morning ablution & dressing routines, the pas de trois becomes the Royal party’s theatre visit and the Prince’s Act 1 soliloquy is the pivotal scene with his mother. The ensemble dancing at The Royal Ball (mostly to the music of the national dances and Black swan pas de deux) was very tightly constructed and danced with a seamless flow.

Matthew Bourne has been highly successful in delivering a widely diverse repertoire of enjoyable and successful dance theatre over the past 25 years but the production that made his name, paving the way for all the successes to follow, remains the market leader. The sustained standing ovation at this Sunday matinee suggests that by regularly “repainting” his masterpiece, Bourne is keeping it as fresh as ever.

Continues at Sadler’s Wells until 26 January 2014
Best availability over Christmas: Thu 26 Dec at 2.30pm & 7.30pm, Tue 31 Dec at 2.30pm and Wed 1 Jan at 2.30pm & 7.30pm

Photos: Bettina Strenske

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK.

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