Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake

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Published: 20th October, 2014

If there were an actual Swan Lake it would be more than a little crowded by now, as the traditional ballet has inspired several standout interpretations yet never lost its own popularity. Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is showing in Melbourne, at the very time the Australian Ballet is making headlines in Los Angeles with Graeme Murphy’s dramatic re-creation of the story.

These two contemporary works make a more interesting comparison than with the “real” Swan Lake – as some persist in calling it, forgetting that there have been many variations on the original production for the Bolshoi Ballet in 1877. The work did not wait even 20 years before being recreated by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov for the Imperial Ballet in a production that is still the starting point for most companies.

Bourne, like Murphy, diverges from the core of the story that told of Odette, a princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer’s curse. Difficulties are real, families (especially Royals!) are dysfunctional, life can be hell without the need for magicians. But where Murphy’s swans are explained as an escapist fantasy, Bourne’s creations inhabit a world of magic realism, appearing until the shocking ending to present a real alternative to living in a world of difficulty and pain.

One of the strengths of Bourne’s production is that that his world is so well created, a “real” world with characters, household routines, social events and a fair dose of incidental humour. One of the lingering memories of the ballet is of the opening scene at the Palace, where an array of black-clad household staff swing into action, their crisp white gloves accentuating every coordinated move. (It should be noted that the cast includes both men and women, with interesting choreography for all, not just the swans!). The same attention to detail is found in the ball scene, with the women in different black evening dresses and a variety of sub-plots danced out simultaneously, one intersecting with the “swan” story.

On opening night, Jonathan Ollivier was a strong Swan/Stranger (the traditional Odette/Odile role), as much a powerful actor as dancer. Bourne has been quoted as explaining: “The idea of a male swan makes complete sense to me … the strength, the beauty, the enormous wingspan of these creatures suggests to me the musculature of a male dancer more readily than a ballerina in her white tutu.” The love story at the centre of the ballet is between such a swan and the main protagonist – the Prince (danced with great emotional range by Chris Marney). Inevitably, this has led some to dismiss Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake as a “gay ballet”. This misses the point. The ballet is about love, and the absence of love, in many forms – and although the strongest emotional bond being between two men is unusual for the genre, it is all the more powerful for that, and with its own beauty. It would be a hard heart indeed which would not be moved by this core element of the story.

There was much else besides to enjoy: the jazz club, the theatre featuring a hilarious parody of a traditional show (involving, oddly, a woodsman and what appeared to be a collection of insects). The comic character of the ditsy, yet sweet girlfriend (Anjali Mehra) came into its own here as she showed a complete unawareness of proper behaviour, with her mobile phone going off mid-show. The Queen (danced by Stephanie Billers as a cold, forbidding mother if ever there was one) was definitely not amused.

As indicated already, the costumes were great although some elements of the set worked better than others – the royal bed, in particular, proved worthy of its central position. But the dancing was everything, with Tchaikovsky’s glorious music to give the work emotional coherence – even though a live orchestra would of course have supported the dancers more specifically.

Soloists and corps gave a virtually flawless performance but it was the glorious, muscular power of the swans that stole the show – as Bourne no doubt intended it should. One of the year’s performance highlights.

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The picture is from the current production and shows Jonathan Ollivier in the role of Swan/Stranger.

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