Matthew Bourne’s ‘Swan Lake’
by Talia Regan
courtesy of Aberdeen Performing Arts
I clearly remember the first time I saw Matthew Bourne's 'Swan Lake'. As a young dancer ravenous for new productions and novel approaches, Bourne's creation, which I first encountered via the 1998 DVD, was certainly striking. Though my childhood was filled with forays to Lincoln Center, I had never seen a pas-de-deux with two male dancers. And, though the corps de ballet in Petipa and Ivanov’s classic original had all the grace of swans, Bourne’s male corps captured the animal element much better; their grace was fickle, feral. After so many years, Bourne's latest revamp of 'Swan Lake', now somewhat freshened up, has proven itself to be a classic. The minor tweaks in plot and production have shown it to be as amenable to restaging as any classic should be. Although the restaging failed to rectify some of the flaws of the original production, it has clarified some of the intricacies of plot which were formerly somewhat confused, while retaining the theatricality and whimsy which defined it from the outset. As Bourne himself has readily admitted, ‘Swan Lake’, despite its namesake, is a ‘show’ more than a ballet, and there is something of the mass-market appeal in its overall quality. Nevertheless, it is a well-loved work with a remarkable capacity for impacting the public.
Little of Bourne’s choreography is especially earth-shattering, but he is an extremely clever employer of stagecraft. Humour and theatre abound throughout his work, surely the source of much of the public’s affection. Some of Bourne’s weakest moments, however, are those that are meant to combine dance and comedy, and Monday night’s dancers clearly struggled to carry these moments off. The ballet-within-the-ballet which featured partway through the first act, for instance, was not nearly so funny as it should have been, partly because it was not clear whether the dancing, which left much to be desired, was deliberately bad – such are the perils of physical comedy in dance, but there is rarely an excuse for clumsy technique or messy execution.
Most of the dancing from the ensemble was good; there were some stand-out technicians in the corps de ballet (although individual dancers, strictly speaking, are not meant to stand out). Some of the swans’ formations were wishy-washy, but I will put that to the hazards of touring with a production; there is often little time to adjust to new spaces. Bourne’s take on the ‘Four Little Swans’ was great fun: it gently ribbed Petipa and Ivanov’s famous choreography and elicited some good laughs from the audience. The women of the ensemble were most successful in the choreography which was the least classical. Their strength as actors suggests they come from a music theatre background.
The principal cast had enormous shoes to fill, bearing the burden of contending with a nostalgic allegiance to Bourne’s original cast, with which anyone familiar with that production surely approached this reboot. Adam Cooper, who originated the role of the Lead Swan/Stranger, was first and foremost a classical dancer, having been a principal with the Royal Ballet. He was well equipped to deal with the various dynamic shifts which the role demanded and his lines were unfailingly exquisite. Will Bozier, who starred in Tuesday’s performance in this iconic role, fell well short of the mark. There was something much too solid in his movement quality, particularly for a swan. His lines always seemed to die somewhere about the elbow and the knee, and he quivered throughout nearly all the protracted balances which are peppered through the Lead Swan’s choreography. On the other hand, Bozier approached his role as the Stranger, the Swan’s dark counterpart, with a good deal more confidence and stage presence, and the sharper movements were better suited to his aptitudes. Dominic North, as the Prince, was much more consistent throughout. His performance was ernest and his technique, for the most part, clean. He occasionally struggled in the most languid moments, but his performance remained strong regardless.
The show, despite a few hiccups, was distinctly enjoyable, which is a testament to Bourne’s prowess as a director. ‘Swan Lake’ carries itself well enough to support the sort of mistakes which are to be expected in any live setting. If assessed by its merits as dance and dance alone, it would be middling at best. But, as an integrative artistic experience, Bourne’s ‘Swan Lake’ has the appeal and the staying power of a true classic.