BWW Review: MATTHEW BOURNE'S SWAN LAKE, Sadler's Wells
Christmas for dance fans doesn't just mean Nutcracker these days - it means another one of Matthew Bourne's characterful and atmospheric productions is rolling into town.
Bourne is not just a choreographer of dance, but an engineer of theatrical experiences that move and excite. His now iconic Swan Lake debuted at Sadler's Wells back in 1995 and has returned sporadically since, but for many younger fans it is their first live experience of "the legend", as it's described in the tagline.
In Bourne's reimagining, our protagonist is a Prince (Liam Mower) suffocated by modern life at court. He tolerates his emotionally distant mother (Nicole Kabera) and unsuitably trashy girlfriend (the continually entertaining Katrina Lyndon) whilst being chauffeured from meaningless function to function, leaving him broken and withdrawn - until he stumbles across a flock of majestic swans.
Bourne working in collaboration with Lez Brotherston's ambient designs once again makes for a winning combination. The early opulent court scenes have the necessary grandeur and naturally are drilled to perfection, with more than the occasional comedic input - of which the robotic Corgi dog is an early highlight. However, what stands out is how much is packed into the hour-and-a-quarter first act - impressive even by Bourne's standards.
No sooner has he painted the image of Mower's lonely Prince than we are swept off to the Opera House for a devastatingly hilarious send-up of traditional ballets. It features Sylph-like characters who fleet and flutter around hopelessly, contrasting with an exaggeratedly masculine male lead who gesticulates wildly with his arms. The two pursue a mini love story while we separately witness the royal box's antics, with Lyndon's girlfriend character making all the imaginable faux pas'.
It's several scenes before we get to hear that familiar few notes of Tchaikovsky's score and are transported to the coolness of the lakeside. Paule Constable's Gothic-esque lighting gives a menacing edge, much like that seen in Bourne's reimagined Sleeping Beauty. The swans themselves are majestic creatures, who intersperse a calm serenity with vicious physicality, jumping and leaping as a single unit.
The ensemble are a hypnotic watch, brooding with physicality, the sweat glistening on their backs. Matthew Ball is commanding as the Swan; in contrast to the reclusive Prince, he is elegant and powerful at the same time. It's easy to understand the Prince's fascination with him. The pas de deux they share is beautifully staged with a simmering intensity that Bourne creates so well.
Iconic or not, this modern day Swan Lake will still be a moderate jump for ballet purists. At times, the chopping up of Tchaikovsky's score might unsettle, and there are of course no 32 fouettes likely to be inserted anytime soon, but it remains an undoubtedly accomplished piece of theatre, with the trademark Bourne slickness and detail.
The final scenes, in which the Prince, confined to his bedroom, is pursued by the swans that emerge from underneath his bed, is brilliantly climactic and uncomfortable all at once. It may not be to all tastes, but it's a scintillating and often breathtaking night out.
Image credit: Johan Persson