NOTE: The following review dates from December 2004 and an earlier run of this production at Sadler's Wells.
Ten years after Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake premiered at Sadler’s Wells, it’s back at its birthplace - for a limited season ahead of an extensive regional tour - in an ecstatic anniversary production.
Given that Whatsonstage.com does not normally review ballet and that this reviewer is a self-confessed simpleton on the subject, passing judgement on Bourne’s creation feels somewhat fraudulent. And yet this is a dance piece that theatregoers have claimed as their own, having witnessed it cross triumphantly over from the somewhat rarefied world of modern dance to (pardon the pun) swan about happily in the mainstream.
In the mere decade since it first took flight, Swan Lake has broken the record as the world’s longest-running ballet, with major seasons in the West End and on Broadway and extensive international tours. It’s also won more than 30 international awards, not least two Tonys for Bourne as Best Director and Best Choreographer of a Musical. Well, if the Tony judges deem it as such – and Bourne has equally been embraced by the theatre world for his work on more traditional musicals such as Oliver!, My Fair Lady, South Pacific and now Mary Poppins and for his own acknowledgment of the great MGM film musicals in his choreography - who am I to quibble?
And who would want to quibble when the product itself is so thrillingly theatrical? Played out on Les Brotherston’s dazzling fairytale set – strikingly lit by Rick Fisher and with costumes and backdrops so vibrant you feel like you’re the first to view the world in technicolour – Tchaikovsky’s 19th-century masterpiece has been given such a daring twist as to transform it into a modern classic in its own right.
The most daring of Bourne’s changes is the gender-bending of the dual enchantresses (Odette/Odile in the original) of the lovesick Prince Siegfried. In Bourne’s version, the Swan/Stranger and all of his ornithological peers are played by male dancers. The vision of this ruthlessly well-drilled corps de ballet, capturing both the beauty and the brawn of these creatures, is truly a sight to behold.
However, this now-famous aspect of the production has led to a mistaken tendency, of which Whatsonstage.com has also been guilty, of referring to Bourne’s as the “all-male” Swan Lake. In fact, the blanket masculinisation applies only to the two dreamlike swan sequences. The all-male misnomer does a disservice to the immaculately poised Nicola Tranah as the Queen and Leigh Daniels as the hapless Girlfriend who raises more than her fair share of the evening’s laughs (the scene where her mobile goes off in the on-stage theatre is priceless), not to mention the rest of the female ensemble. *
Nevertheless, in Bourne’s psychodrama of repressed homosexuality, it’s the men who ultimately rule the roost. Adam Cooper achieved international renown as The Swan. That role now falls to the highly capable Jose Tirado with Neil Westmoreland as his amour, the Prince.* Together, they plumb the depths and scale the heights of intoxicating love and lust.
Ten years on, this Swan Lake is a celebration indeed. Still daring, still sexy, still breathtaking, beautiful and gloriously theatrical. Perhaps after Sadler’s Wells and regional dates, the West End will beckon once again. I, for one, would never tire of it. Oh yes, and then there’s the accompanying music of Tchaikovsky, which soars along with the dancer’s movements and the audience’s hearts – can’t fault that much either!