From the superstars of the Bolshoi to Billy Elliot raising money for a bus ticket to London, the history of the male ballet dancer is a checkered one- as filled with triumph and acclaim as derision and neglect. Few modern stagings have carved their place in the history of the male ballet star, or indeed into the form itself as Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. A punk rock reimagining, at the time of its first performance it took the Tchaikovsky scored classic and tried to blow it up from the inside, feathered tutus and all. Bourne recounts that during its first run little girls left the performances in tears, sobbing that their parents had bought tickets to the wrong Swan Lake. Perhaps only a stranger to the worlds of buns and pointe shoes, as Bourne was at the time, would’ve dared such a thing.
Watching this revival I was struck by how profound a transformation Bourne’s staging is from the original. This is no gimmicky gender-swap, but a shift in tone, message, and story. I was struck too at how similar it seemed to Ballet Black’s Midsummer’s Night Dream that was performed at The Barbican some months go, evidence that Bourne has had an influence in modern ballet that has stood the test of time. In Bourne’s Swan Lake we follow a pampered but affection-deprived Prince as he seems to find love, is betrayed, then finds passion and freedom in the unlikeliest of places. Will Bozier is tremendous as the Swan; bare chested, forehead marked with war paint, he dances with muscularity and avian grace. If the traditional tutu-performances of Swan Lake depict the swans with the ethereal beauty of Edwardian paintings, Bourne’s swans bare their dinosaur hearts. Sometimes ungainly, sometimes ferocious, always otherworldly they disrupt the proper-ness of the palace scenes with wildness. Bourne’s staging has always been hailed as “the gay Swan Lake”, certainly the pas-de-deux between the Prince (Dominic North) and the Swan King are passionate and tender, but it is also an ode to the chaos of nature, a rejection of rigid rules and carefully observed manners. Peppered with pantomime-esque humour, the staging sings with irreverent energy, in particular, Carrie Willis as the The Girlfriend is scene-stealingly good.
If casting the Swan Queen and her cast of swans as male dancers was a challenge in the 90s then maintaining that sense of revolution and drama, nearly twenty years later as the now classic returns to Sadler’s Wells is no less of a feat. With humour, great verve, and a fantastic corps of dancers, Swan Lake delivers.