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New Adventures

Matthew Bourne's 'Swan Lake'

by David Mead

October 25, 2005 -- Milton Keynes Theatre, Milton Keynes, England

I have an admission to make. It’s been ten years since Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake“ was born, and while I had seen it on film, this was the first time I saw it in the flesh.

Of course, what Bourne’s version is best known for is his replacing the usually very feminine swans with a herd of aggressive, hissing, rather menacing, males. Men’s taking the swans’ roles is original but where Bourne has really succeeded is in making the shift seem quite normal. You actually don’t really notice the gender reversal.

Bourne’s choreography is a little hit and miss. He seems at his best with the swans and when he works in direct parallel to the traditional white-tutued “Swan Lake”. It’s when he moves away, inserting his own narrative, that the problems arise. This is especially true in Act I. As with many “Swan Lakes”, this part is basically little more than a scene-setter with lots of acting. There’s not much dancing, and when we do get some the choreography fails to really hold the attention.

The ballet is full of humour, which for me at least doesn’t always work. I would go so far as to say that some of it seems dated. Then again, I’ve never been one for what I’ll call ‘in your face pantomime humour’. The Act I ‘ballet within a ballet’ had most of the audience roaring with laughter but could only raise a smile on this observer’s face. Where Bourne is a master is in what I’ll call his ‘asides’, those little things that happen, sometimes no more than a look. Leigh Daniels, who danced The Girlfriend, was brilliant, stealing the ‘ballet within a ballet’ scene in which she played the audience member from hell. We’ve all sat near them, the mobile phone ringing, the loud rustling of chocolate wrappers, the dropped handbag, talking, sighing...

The principals that night were all superb, especially Alan Vincent as The Swan and The Stranger. Vincent brought some very special qualities to the role. Tall and physically imposing, he became the centre of attention every time he stepped on the stage. He really epitomised a large male swan, managing successfully to combine incredible strength with gracefulness.

Elsewhere, Simon Wakefield was excellent as The Prince, looking for affection and, it seems, a reason for being; only when dancing with Vincent did he seem to be released from his mental turmoil. Saranne Curtin was perfect as his mother and head of this dysfunctional family, giving us an apparently cold, detached Queen. If you’re starting to think parallels with real life here, Bourne even has a footman walking a corgi.

Perhaps the most important thing about Bourne’s production is that it is accessible and a good evening’s entertainment:  a story line that is easily followed, excellent dancers, and great sets and lighting. This does seem to be something of a formula when it comes to Bourne’s productions of well-known ballets, but for many people it works. And if this formula draws in people who might not otherwise have come along, that can be no bad thing.

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