DANCE REVIEW: Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake

3 May 2014

New Wimbledon Theatre

Matthew Bourne’s New Advenures

on tour in the UK and Europe until 14 June – see website for details

It almost seems futile to review Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, such are the praise and accolades that have been heaped upon it over the years. Surely no other piece of contemporary dance theatre has become such a sturdy fixture in the country’s collective cultural consciousness? It is the longest-running ballet (if you can call it that — the only truly classically balletic elements are a send-up…) both in the West End and on Broadway, and has picked up over 30 international awards in its time. Best of all, it hasn’t survived into its nineteenth year on the back of the hype that first surrounded it, when the relatively unknown Bourne and his Adventures In Motion Pictures company announced the casting of male swans — it has survived through its sheer quality, which was evident in spades at the New Wimbledon Theatre last week.

Photo: Laura Peatman
Photo: Laura Peatman

The most notable difference between this production and the classic Tchaikovsky piece is of course the male corps de ballet, who make up the bevy of swans from the titular lake. Bourne has commented that “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”. Seeing the ensemble in all their glory, who could disagree? They are threatening yet eerily enticing, odd but absolutely believable, and powerful yet unquestionably beautiful.

What the uninitiated may not know, however, are the rest of the plot changes, amongst which see our hero (The Prince, here danced by Liam Mower — original star of Billy Elliot the Musical, in a brilliant twist of fate!) pick up a frowned-upon girlfriend, visit a seedy bar and end his days in a bleak asylum. Bourne is a magician at making the score fit this new story arc, character development and choreography — it’s as if it were written for this production. The show has been honed and refined throughout the last two decades, and the balance has been struck between exuberance and the tortured mind, all delivered with a hefty dash of wit. Seeing the show live also reinforces what a glorious score this is, as the familiar melodies redouble their power when found in their rightful home.

The performances are spot-on throughout, with the Girlfriend (Carrie Johnson) providing wonderfully-timed comedy and the Queen (Saranne Curtin) icy yet passionate. Yet stealing the show is the combination of Mower and the Swan/Stranger (alternately played by Jonathan Ollivier, Chris Trenfield, Simon Williams and Glenn Graham). Their pas de deux are alluring, exquisite and heart-breaking in their sense of longing and loneliness; in particular, Mower’s shaping and extended reach in all his lines are gorgeous, striving to reach unattainable satisfaction and acceptance, while The Swan/Stranger is mesmerising in every move, in both roles.

As the tragedy builds, the emotion swells and the audience are held in a trance by this moving, majestic and spectacular production. Long may it continue.

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