Words: Simon Button
Along with Christmas, carbs, panto at the Palladium and thermal underwear, Matthew Bourne’s version of Swan Lake is such an established feature of the winter months, having come around several times since its 1995 premiere, that I’m a little ashamed to admit I’ve never seen it before.
But to encounter it now, 24 years after it first shook up the ballet establishment, is to realise why it’s such a beloved production that, in recasting its Swan as a male who beguiles the reluctant-to-marry Prince, remains deliciously subversive.
The obvious draw is the fact it features impossibly toned, shirtless men as its swan chorus. Bourne’s radical reinterpretation of Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet transcends is also a work of great beauty - once ahead of the curve when it came to breaking the rules in the 90s, now very contemporary as it plays a residency at London’s Sadler’s Wells before heading out on a UK tour.
It is also, more than anything else, a breathtaking night at the theatre. With its magnificent score and simplicity of plot (unhappy Prince dreams of true love in the shape of a sexy Swan) it’s the most entertaining and accessible of ballets.
Bourne has made some revisions for this revival, including, I assume, a mobile phone that goes off during a ballet within the ballet - in a scene where the dancers are deliberately a little off, which I imagine given the skill of the performers involved is as hard to do as it is very funny to watch.
Bourne’s choreography is inventive and witty, such as when the Prince uses his footmen as stepping stones out of an oversized bed and a scene in a bar that’s Sweet Charity by way of Moulin Rouge! featuring a jaded drag queen who seems to have drifted in from the Two Brewers in Clapham.
Played in turn by Will Bozier and Max Westwell, the shirtless Swan and his cocky Stranger alter-ego crackles with such sexual heat it’s amazing the theatre doesn’t go up in flames and the ‘Dance of the Little Swans’ is done by a quartet of preening show-offs, as individual in personality as they are precision-timed in their dancing.
And that’s the genius of Bourne’s Swan Lake: It’s reverent about ballet conventions but shakes them up to create something challenging, erotic and quite beautiful - a tragedy that soars, by turns fanciful and moving and dark and disturbing, and absolutely not to be missed.
Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is at London's Sadler’s Wells Theatre until 27 January, then tours the UK until 25 May. For great deals on tickets and shows click here.