Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake
Radical choreographer brings his ground-breaking adaptation of Tchaikovsky's ballet to Belfast
Through his own original contemporary dance/theatre pieces and revelatory revisions of cherished classical ballets, choreographer/director Matthew Bourne and his New Adventures company have carved out their own ground-breaking artistic language, coupled with a distinctively prismatic performance style.
Bourne's trio of brilliantly refashioned Tchaikovsky ballets – Swan Lake, Nutcracker! and Sleeping Beauty – have acquired iconic status within the world of dance, thanks in no small part to their spectacular stagings, individualistic dance vocabulary and startling new takes on much-loved storylines. The most famous of the three is Swan Lake.
Premiered at London's Sadler's Wells Theatre in 1995, it challenged much of what had long been held sacred in the classical genre. Frequently, though erroneously, referred to as 'the all-male Swan Lake', its most daring element is the substitution of a flock of delicate, fluttering female swans with a group of aggressive male birds, whose leader is a dramatically handsome creature, exuding mystery and a strange, unearthly sensuality.
Its premiere was foreshadowed by a chorus of loudly expressed doubts and speculation, in the dance arena and beyond, with one camp convinced that the whole thing would be little more than a hilarious send-up – a kind of playful Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo romp – and the other fearful of an unrecognisably dreadful mess.
What emerged, however, was a revolutionary and thought-provoking narrative, lifting the lid on thorny personal issues and making perfect sense of what is, frankly, a rather silly story.
In its traditional format, a young prince turns down the attentions of a whole host of gorgeous young women in favour of a passionate but inevitably doomed love affair with a swan. But the affable and famously accessible Bourne, who has danced in and seen the ballet many times, viewed its themes rather differently.
A few months ago, at the start of a packed 2013/14 season, which includes UK and international tours of Swan Lake and revivals of Lord of the Flies, Edward Scissorhands and The Car Man (based on Bizet's opera Carmen), Bourne found time to reflect on the making of a work, which, over the years has garnered numerous awards and made his an international name.
'The very first idea was the thought of all-male swans,' he recalls. 'That had come to me watching the ballet long before I ever had a company or any possibility of doing Swan Lake at all. It was just a daydream. I remember being intrigued as to what that might do to the plot.
'I had seen the ballet a lot and I had this memory of [Royal Ballet dancer] Anthony Dowell [as the Prince] wandering around in Act One pretty much saying, "No, I will not get married. Take her away; I want something else." So I just thought, "Oh, there’s something going on in this story that is not being told".'
And that was? 'I think it was that feeling of someone who is yearning for something, which seemed to me a metaphor for someone who is possibly gay or who maybe just wanted a different kind of woman. It definitely felt like something that was there in the ballet itself and not anything I had invented. And if you consider Tchaikovsky’s own life and the turmoil and violence in the music, that also suggested something much deeper than a lot of pretty swans in a row.'
Watching a performance in the huge, multi-tiered auditorium of Bord Gais Energy Theatre in Dublin, one is struck by the fact that, 18 years on, the piece remains so fresh and relevant. Long-time collaborator Lez Brotherston's set and costumes are nothing less than breathtaking, whisking the characters from the splendours of the royal palace, opera house and ballroom to a sleazy backstreet nightclub and a shimmering lake in a leafy city park.
In the hands of this dedicated and gifted young company, there is a palpable sense of respect for the themes of the original piece. alongside a commitment to the enterprising spirit of Bourne's reincarnation. And pulling the whole piece together is Tchaikovsky's glorious score, which, particularly when cranked up to full throttle in the nightclub scene, makes the hairs rise on the back of the neck.
Back in 1995, when the piece was starting to be more than merely a twinkle in the choroegrapher's eye, the UK was caught up with a very public divorce in the top echelons of society. Speaking recently to critic Matt Wolf of the International New York Times, Bourne made no bones about how the Charles/Diana/Camilla love triangle had captured his imagination and fed into his crafting of the storyline.
'It’s funny, the royal aspect is the thing I thought everyone would pick up on at the time because royal scandal was such a big deal when we opened. All that was quite inspiring, since one felt there was a story going on in real life, as in Swan Lake, having to do with a prince who couldn’t marry the person – in Charles’s case, Camilla – he really loved and so had to marry a suitable young person in Diana for us all to fall in love with.
'All that seemed terribly sad if you looked at it from a purely human point of view, so I thought there was a lot of sympathy to be had for a prince who couldn’t be what he wanted to be. There are so few people in society who are actually in that position.
'We have different sorts of royals now. The young princes seem more well-adjusted, or shall we say "normal", so I’m not sure we see them in quite the same way as we once looked at Charles. On the other hand, I do think there’s still very much a relevance here. You still have to be a certain type of person to be part of the royal family. It’s important that our story is set in an uncertain, unspecified time period. It’s as much about now as it was about then.'
Watching the 40-strong company taking class on stage, one is struck by their collective youthfulness. Hoodies, track suits and jogging pants are the dress code as they go through their disciplined daily routine under the eye of senior dancer Madelaine Brennan, who will play the role of the sexy, controlling Queen when Swan Lake arrives in the Grand Opera House in Belfast on April 1.
The regime of class is a great leveller; there is no room for grandstanding or showing off. But one slight, tousled young man stands out from his colleagues, simply by virtue of his supreme, undisguised dance skills. He is Liam Mower from Hull in Yorkshire, who was plucked from the Royal Ballet's boarding school, White Lodge, to play the title role in the premiere of Billy Elliot: the Musical.
A fine actor as well as a superb dancer, Mower is perfectly cast as the Prince, his pale, innocent face portraying anguish, shame, longing and brief flashes of unbridled joy in his passionate pas de deux with Chris Trenfield's domineering Swan.
Trenfield was last seen in Belfast in an altogether different guise, as the sweet-natured young gardener Leo, the hero of Bourne's Sleeping Beauty. He is outstanding in the double-sided Odette/Odile role, the White Swan and the Black Swan respectively, the latter here personified as a strutting leather-suited Stranger, who brings the glamorous ladies of the Court to their knees.
In the immediate aftermath of an exhausting performance – and with Trenfield due back on stage two hours later – the two find time to chat about their roles and the thrilling partnership they forged on tour.
'It's a weird show to come down from,' says Trenfield, bare-torsoed and still sporting the sinister black marks of his stage make-up. 'It takes a lot out of you, physically and emotionally. I trained in musical theatre so I am used to that combination of acting and dancing. Swan Lake was my first show for Matthew in 2009.
'I was the understudy to Jonathan Ollivier as the Swan. Jonny is a fantastic dancer and now here I am sharing the role with him. I really enjoy dancing with Liam. The choreography demands a lot of complex lifts. He is thin and light and very flexible. In the traditional ballet version, the Swan is small and fragile, while the Prince is strong and masculine. Here those roles are completely subverted.'
Mower describes how their partnership developed while on the road in 2013. 'We were touring with Sleeping Beauty and rehearsing Swan Lake at the same time. Trenny and I started trying different things, in terms of lifts and holds. We formed a real connection and it came together really well. Now we are on stage together, it feels very natural.'
And with the precocious wisdom of youth, he looks back on a short but glittering career, which has already completed one impressive full circle. 'Everyone remembers the last scene of Billy Elliot, which is set in the wings of Matthew's Sleeping Beauty. In the film, you see Adam Cooper about to make his entrance on stage as the Swan. I could never have imagined that one day I would be dancing the Prince in that same piece. I was 12 then. Now I'm 21. Where did the years go?'
Swan Lake runs in the Grand Opera House, Belfast from April 1 – 5.