Ten years since its premiere Matthew Bourne’s globally successful ballet phenomenon is back on the stage where it began. The all-male troupe of bare-chested swans has deservedly become an iconic image and Adam Cooper, the production’s original star, has gone on to have an exciting career both as a dancer, actor and a choreographer.
The reasons for its success are evident. Bourne gleefully disregards pretty much every ballet convention as he reworks Tchaikovsky’s classic tale. And he knows how to milk humour from the unfolding story without ever detracting from the grace of the action. (As the rebellious young prince slinks into a seedy nightclub, a poster for Swan Vesta matches dominates the back alley set.) Bourne even finds the time to gently mock more traditional ballets in the scene where the prince reluctantly escorts his ‘girlfriend’ to the theatre.
The swans are the undoubted highlight of the night, their fluid movements a joy. As you would expect, the choreography is truly something: the men’s gestures impeccably swanlike, their footwork fluid. They flock and hiss in a manner both enchanting and menacing. When they are offstage you long for their next appearance.
Lez Brotherston’s expressionistic set design compliments the action perfectly, being hugely atmospheric yet not overwhelming. There are some inspired technical touches, particular in the second half where the dancers drift past strategic spotlights, casting sinister shadows up the all-white walls.
As the central swan Jose Tirado capably fills Cooper’s shoes. And in the less iconic but perhaps more demanding role of the prince, Neil Westmoreland is equally engaging. He makes a convincing transition from nave and pampered little princeling to dashing, leather-trousered, yet still troubled, young man in the truly stunning ball scene. I’m not qualified to talk about the technical ability of the dancers but there is an undoubted chemistry between the two leads, the way they move together, the amazing moment when the swan cradles the prince’s body in the crook of his elbow, delicately lifting him. Bourne draws the emotion out of this relationship, building towards the genuinely moving conclusion.
This is a piece of broad passions: love and loss. Endlessly inventive, the ballet’s joys are undiminished by being ten years old. Though seeing it for the first time in this anniversary production at Sadler’s Wells, the venue where the piece premiered, you do miss that sense of excitement, that sense that you’re seeing something completely original and vaguely subversive.
Like no other dance production Bourne’s ballet has entered our cultural consciousness (it was his Swan Lake that the adult Billy Elliot was set to star in); its success has spanned the globe, accumulating numerous awards along the way. Even if you’ve never been particularly interested in dance as an art form this is that rare thing, a must-see production, capable of appealing to all.