Matthew Bournes celebrated version of Tchaikovskys Swan Lake premiered at Sadlers Wells in 1995. Since then it has become the longest-running ballet in the West End and on Broadway and has toured all over the world, winning numerous awards. Now back at its original home after 11 years, does the show justify its status as a modern classic? Absolutely.
The freshness and urgency of Bournes reimagining of this much-loved ballet still retains its power to move and enchant. He has, of course, changed the original story which, together with the choreography and even the music, has been subject to continual revision ever since the first production in 1877 – but has remained true to its spirit.
In addition, Bournes choreography is much more direct and varied than Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipas classic choreography from 1895. Because he is director as well as choreographer, Bourne is determined to accentuate the dramatic qualities of the story, which means that the show possesses a sense of urgency so often missing from traditional ballet.
The most obvious change Bourne has made of course is to make the swans male. This means that the Princes love for Odette (queen of the swans, who yearns to be human) now takes on a homoerotic aspect as he falls for the masculine beauty of the Swan. But the more fundamental change is to shift the emotional heart of the show towards the Prince, whose intense feelings of loneliness and sexual repression lead to fantasy taking over and consequent mental breakdown. The result is a gripping psychodrama where the swans are evidently figments of the Princes overheated imagination.
This is made clear in the Prologue as we see the adolescent Prince tossing and turning in his kingsize bed, above which hovers the figure of a swan, at once seductive and threatening its not clear if this is sexual fantasy or a nightmare, an ambiguity which runs throughout the story. We then see the fatherless Princes daily routine of public duties, in which he accompanies his mother the Queen as she launches a ship or attends a royal performance, surrounded by a legion of deferential servants, goggling members of the public and intrusive paparazzi.
It becomes clear that the Princes empty, isolated life is all about maintaining a public image, while his remote mother denies him the love he craves. He is stopped from carrying out his intention of drowning himself in the park lake by the appearance of the swans, and in particular the leader, with whom he becomes enthralled but whether these beautiful, wild creatures will lead him to salvation or doom is uncertain.
Bournes production is superbly detailed, and contains as much wit as passion, so that the tragic atmosphere is offset by plenty of comic relief, including satirical allusions to our own royal family, a delicious send-up of conventional ballet and some comedy club dancing. But the scenes that stay in the mind are the intensely dramatic ones, such as the ballroom scene in the royal palace where the sadomasochistic sexual tension runs high as The Stranger (the Swans dark alter ego) dances with all the women in turn, or the climax in the Princes bedroom where the swans gather menacingly on his bed like a extras from Hitchcocks The Birds.
Lez Brotherstons wonderful sets and costumes perfectly complement Bournes dramatic aims. The huge buttresses and walls of the palace emphasize the Princes sense of isolation, while the feathery-britch-wearing, bare-chested swans suggest a muscular grace.
As the Prince, Matthew Hart cuts a sympathetic figure, trying to come to terms with his own sexuality and yearning for perhaps an unattainable ideal. Thomas Whitehead (a Royal Ballet Soloist) projects great charisma as the Swan/Stranger, as a sort of homme fatale, combining both sensitivity and ruthlessness.
Saranne Curtin (a long-time Bourne collaborator) does not make the Queen too heartless towards her son, but is concerned to keep up appearances, while discreetly flirting with handsome naval officers. Nina Goldman is an amusingly shallow It Girl as the wannabe Girlfriend of the Prince, while Alan Vincent is the rather sinister controlling figure of the Private Secretary.
It is a tribute to Bournes vision that the quality of the dancing is matched by the quality of the acting in fact, they cant be separated. This is dance-drama of the highest order. For once, the audiences standing ovation was fully justified.