Innovative, playful and dramatic are just a few of the many terms I would use to describe the sensation that is Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. This production, a contemporary interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s original ballet, features an excitingly dangerous male ensemble, which has come to be known as a defining feature of Bourne’s Swan Lake.
The story follows the menacing flock of male swans as they endeavour to make The Prince, a troubled character with an overbearing mother, one of their own. Set against light hearted scenes enriched with humour and wit, this production achieves the perfect balance between creative art and emotional, serious drama.
In this stage of their UK Tour, the show has come to Nottingham’s Theatre Royal; a beautiful setting which appropriately complements the elegance that is interwoven throughout the production. Acts 1 and 2 ran for 1 hour and 10 minutes, followed by a 20 minute interval and finishing with Act 3 and 4 lasting a further hour. The entire show ran smoothly and without interruption, which served for an overall pleasant viewing experience.
Whilst there is sometimes the expectation that performances without dialogue will be difficult to follow, this was not the case for Swan Lake. The music, with credit to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, helped to define the narrative by using specific audible arrangements to indicate significant scenes. Furthermore, exaggerated theatrical gestures, which included audience interaction, also contributed to the understanding of the narrative. It was also interesting to observe aspects that cleverly enhanced the effectiveness of the plot. These included elements such as clapping, being purposefully heavy footed to create a slapping noise and exploiting breath control to produce hissing sounds, all to draw attention to the dancers as they mimicked the movement and behaviour of swans.
“A wonderful showcase of the immense ability of the male dancers”
Something that stood out to me throughout the entirety of the performance was the sheer level of intricate detail that was prevalent in every aspect of the show. Most notably, the choreography created by award winning Director and Choreographer Matthew Bourne and the way in which it was interpreted and performed by the cast. Despite the entire production being admirably polished, with a variety of dance styles as well as the more traditional ballet, there were obvious memorable moments for me.
Towards the end of Act 4, the swan dance taking place in The Prince’s bedroom truly captured their intense, swarming nature. The way in which the traditional ballet form was utilised to portray these sophisticated yet fierce creatures was close to perfection, especially with regards to the powerful movements of the head and eyes as well as the attentive placement of hands. Interestingly, the positioning of the lights in this section resulted in shadows of the dancers being cast onto the backdrop behind them, a feature that was used more than once during the show and successfully added to the dramatic and threatening effect. This was a wonderful showcase of the immense ability of the male dancers, with the fluidity of their movements highlighting their strength, but also their ease of movement and gracefulness.
“This section also offered a refreshing alternative to the stereotypical form of delicate females that dance en pointe in tutus”
Bourne further displays his diverse choreographic abilities by implementing scenes that are of a slightly different style when compared to traditional versions of Swan Lake. For instance, Act 3 Scene 2, featuring The Royal Ball, was particularly noticeable with the arrival of the Princesses; each with their own captivating characteristic flare. This scene contained a plethora of ballroom dances, which provided the audience with a sense of sophistication and sensuality. Moreover, Bourne supplies a comical twist in Act 2, with the traditional ‘Danse des petits cygnes’ being performed by 4 flamboyant males; a winning addition that received many laughs from the audience. As well as serving entertainment purposes, this section also offered a refreshing alternative to the stereotypical form of delicate females that dance en pointe in tutus.
Set and Costume Designer Lez Brotherston also went above and beyond to ensure that these elements were on the same level as the rest of the production, since they were often relied upon to help define the characters and situate the scene appropriately. The structures that made up the sets were strategically positioned around the peripherals of the stage, often forming a frame which allowed the dancers adequate space in which to move. Furthermore, props such as tables, chairs and beds were effectively incorporated into the dances. As well as helping to indicate where the scene is taking place, the performers could also climb on top of them, which added the dynamic of levelling into the routines.
“The Queen’s dresses were striking”
In terms of costume design, The Queen’s dresses were striking and the divine detailing enabled her superior status to be expressed. The black sparkling outfits of the Princesses in Act 3 Scene 2 were also stunning and they largely helped to form the unique personalities of each female. However, I do feel that at times, the length of their costumes sometimes deducted from what we could see of their performance, especially when it came to movements such as développé’s. Nevertheless, the interaction of both costume and set design helped to tell Bourne’s interpreted tale in an unforgettable way.
“This was a performance I was hoping would never come to an end”
In conclusion, this was a performance I was hoping would never come to an end. Whilst many of its elements took me by surprise, such as the prominent comedic aspects and the modernity interjected into its context, I left the production feeling lucky to have experienced something so well crafted. The main factor I extracted from the performance was how explicit it was that every single performer wanted to be on stage, almost as if they were fighting to return the next day. I recommend this production because it really does have something for everyone, regardless of whether you prefer traditional ballet or not, it is undoubtedly compelling from start to finish.
Featured image courtesy of Sian Baldwin.