Dance in London: Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake

Posted on January 27th, 2010 by

Date: Thursday, January 21st, 2010
Performance Locale: Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London
Production: Swan Lake

Our journey began in the lobby of the Janet Poole House where our rooms are located and ended in the lobby of Sadler’s Wells Theatre. Upon entrance to the theatre, a sea of fellow audience members, a ticket box office, flights of stairs and a stand selling programs for four pounds, and sweets for about two pounds greeted us. We wound our way up to the second circle of seating and found our seats. Instead of the standard red curtain hiding the stage, an off-white curtain with a giant swan hid the stage. The show opened with a short curtain raiser dance that had been produced by individuals aged fourteen to twenty three, with the help of the Swan Lake cast. The dance was part of Sadler’s Wells’ educational outreach program and the desire to make the theatre and companies that perform there more accessible to everyone. It was not a piece with a clear, linear storyline, but rather it allowed the dancers to simply be expressive through movement. After the curtain raiser ended, a short pause followed, and then the main show began.

The house lights went down, and lights came from behind the off-white screen that bore the image of the flying swan (the scrim) to illuminate a giant bed upon which slept the solitary figure of the Prince. Above the Prince’s bed danced the figure of a shirtless, barefoot man in trousers covered in white tassels, who we would later learn was the leader of the swans. The use of the scrim informed the audience that what we were seeing was in fact a dream that the Prince was having. As the scrim rises, ensemble members enter and dress the Prince for a day of royal duties. The Prince becomes bored with ceremonial duties and is introduced to a character called “the Girlfriend.” Her costume is bright, sparkly and looks very out of place next to the elegantly dressed Prince and Queen. Despite his mother’s rejection of the Girlfriend, the Prince brings her to a ballet in the following scene. The ballet is the only time in this version of Swan Lake when girls wear tutus and pointe shoes. The performance of the ballet is a means of mocking the traditional ballets. The Girlfriend’s terrible theatre etiquette, prompts the Queen to leave before the ballet has quite concluded. Upon returning to the palace, the scene is somber as the audience watches the Prince, alone in his rooms, turns to drinking in an attempt to deal with the lack of love and affection in his life. The Queen sweeps onto the stage to find her son in such a state. The pas de deux (dance for two) that follows is not the standard graceful ballet partner work usually seen in ballet. Rather, the movements are quick and physical contact is almost violent as the Prince begs for the Queen to love him. Following her refusal of love, the scene changes to a 70’s style disco club where the Prince continues his search for affection, but to no avail. The last scene of Act I draws pity from the audience as we watch the Prince sit on the street. In his depressed and slightly drunk state, the Prince’s dream of the swan reappears as he imagines the flock coming toward him but when he stands to dance with them, the vision disappears and the curtain closes on Act I.

Act II begins with the Prince debating taking his own life. Yet as he sits on the park bench, the traditional ensemble of swans begins to fill the stage. This is the point the difference in this production of Swan Lake and others become very clear. Instead of petite girls in white tutus and pointe shoes, men in white pants dance the role of the swan ensemble. The next twenty-five minutes are filled with breath-taking jumps and leaps, quick but elegant spins and the collective, audible breath of the swan ensemble. The dances range in length and number of dancers with a duet involving the Prince and the lead Swan having fewest dancers to moments where the entire flock dances together. Most of the small group pieces only last for a minute or two. However, Matthew Bourne’s choreography is even faster and more physically demanding than the traditional (which isn’t slow or easy in the first place). The engaging and well-executed choreography makes the entire first scene of the second act goes by in a blur of white, feathery pants, bold, black face markings and elegant movements that use the entire body. At first repelled from the swans by their almost-violent jumps and sharp movements, the Prince finally is taken into the loving embrace of the lead Swan, and feels affection and love for the first time.

Act III draws the audience into a world of glittering black dresses and black and white tuxedos as the stage morphs into a ballroom. The Queen steals the scene in her red satin dress as she flirts with her secretary’s son (called the Stranger). Meanwhile, the Prince has not recovered from his suicidal contemplations, and in fact his madness seems to be increasing. The dark, charismatic Stranger reminds the Prince of the lead Swan and the Prince begins to dream about dancing with the Stranger but quickly loses his sense of what is real and what is not. When his mother, the Queen, kisses the Stranger, marking him as her lover, the Prince flies into an outrage and threatens to shoot his mother.

When the curtain opens for Act IV, the audience is nearly blinded by the light reflecting off a harsh, white wall that reaches to the ceiling of the theatre. A single window, which is covered by bars, is the only thing that decorates the wall. The Prince emerges from a door, dressed in all white. His movements are that of a man walking, not an elegant dancer and not a wild swan. He is followed to the front of the stage shortly by his mother, a doctor, and a number of female cast members, all of whom wear masks of his mother’s face. Although the Prince is clearly going insane, the Queen cannot summon affection for him, and leaves in a manner that is reminiscent of her departure in Act I. The Prince attempts to sleep after the doctor and Queen are gone, but his nightmare of the swans returns and he checks under his bed and around the room for the creatures. The audience sees the swans slowly emerging from under the Prince’s bed after the Prince has fallen into a tortured slumber. The nightmare-turned-reality begins with three swans, only to be followed by more until fourteen swans fill the stage and surround the Prince. Eventually the lead Swan emerges from the Prince’s bed, almost as though he’s emerging from the Prince’s dream, and dances with the Prince. The tenderness of the dance lasts only a few moments because the rest of the swans reemerge and attack first the Prince, (though he is defended by the lead Swan) and then the lead Swan. Though the Prince tries to save his Swan, he is too weak and dies of a broken heart. The Queen finds her dead son and for the first time, breaks down and shows emotion toward him. The final image of the Lead Swan holding the Prince lingers behind the scrim as the lights fade and the applause swells.

Sadler’s Wells Theatre seems to be the ideal place for a modern adaptation of a classical ballet. The theatre is the United Kingdom’s premier dance house and is deeply committed to dance because of the belief that dance has the potential to reach across cultural barriers and touch many, people. The works performed at Sadler’s Wells are both commissioned by the theatre, and performances that come from the outside. Bourne’s Swan Lake was not commissioned by Sadler’s Wells, but it did premier at the theatre, and has returned a number of times for holiday season showing.
This adaptation of a traditional ballet was greeted with skepticism when it first premiered, but now has a firm standing and is hailed as a masterpiece. The skepticism from critiques, as well as viewers, came from the decision to make the swan ensemble male. The choice raised questions about homosexuality that some critiques and audience members considered inappropriate for the traditional ballet stage. However, Bourne says in interviews that the story is not about finding true love, or being in love, but rather about being loved. In that respect, Bourne’s version differs from the traditional ballet because the Prince in the original ballet falls deeply in love with the lead swan (Odette) as opposed to simply seeking affection.

I enjoyed that the production was taken out of a romantic period and incorporated a 1970’s style bar with modern dancing, as well as combing aspects of modern with the ballet movements used by the men playing the swans. I felt that the swans were more realistically depicted in Bourne’s version than in traditional productions of Swan Lake because of the way in which the choreography forced the dancers to use their entire bodies instead of being comprised of petit foot movements. The use of audible, collective breath was also effective in making the “swans” come to life. Wild creatures don’t often take kindly to humans attempting to interact with them, and the traditional “Swan Lake” portrays the swans as delicate and hardly responding to the Prince’s approach whereas Bourne’s swans hiss and run at him with their bodies low to the ground in an attack stance. The costumes helped a great deal to remind the audience that this was not a traditional ballet. Since corset bodices and stiff tutus were not worn, they did not limit the women’s movements, and most of the men were not wearing tights, but rather leggings or suit pants, depending upon the scene. The production team put together a wonderful production that caught the viewer up in the story and no technical elements stood out in a way that was distracting.

Being a ballet dancer, and having danced parts of Swan Lake, as well as other pieces that use Peter Tchaikovsky’s music, this production was one of the highlights of my time here in London. I’ve seen the traditional Swan Lake and found both versions to be very moving and challenging. With Bourne’s version, we don’t struggle with the knowledge that the female swans are being imprisoned so they will remain pure, nor are women objectified in the same way simply because men make up the ensemble. The story we witnessed was about seeking love, not the fairy-tale ideals of being in love with someone who will always be a hero and save the “helpless” maiden. I felt the story was more complex and had commentary about the mentally ill (when the Prince is locked up), family affection (the Queen’s inability to love), socially acceptable actions (during the mock ballet, the Girlfriend’s cell phone rings) and raised questions about being loved and being in love. Personally, I did not read it as the Prince and lead Swan being in love but rather as two individuals who are trapped in their own lives and long for affection. In that way, I felt that this adaptation was more accessible to all audience members because there were so many situations to which one could relate him or herself. I don’t cry over ballet productions, but this version nearly had me in tears, simply from the easy grace and elegance that the performers showed. It was an absolute blessing to be in the audience for that production of Swan Lake.

 

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