Will Bozier as The Swan with the ensemble forming a wedge of swans. Pictures: Johan Persson

Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake

Birmingham Hippodrome


It is 24 years since Sir Matthew Bourne first sent shockwaves through the world of dance, ruffling feathers up and down the land with his all male corps of swans.

These days the shockwaves are more from the standing ovations for what has becomes an international classic of contemporary dance, a modern Swan Lake celebrated in much the same way that Sir Peter Wright’s revered version residing next door at BRB is at the pinnacle of classic ballet.

Two versions of the same story to Tchaikovsky’s magnificent, symphonic score, and as for the swans? Bourne felt swans were more aggressive, more menacing than traditional ballet’s corps and tragic prima ballerinas portrayed them – hence men in Lez Brotherston’s feathered pantaloons.

Instead of Odette/Odile we have just The Swan who appears at the ball as The Stranger, arrogant and macho in his black leather trousers and danced superbly by Will Bozier. It is a part demanding athleticism as well as a sort of brooding dynamism, and above all it demands stamina. It is a big role with huge demands and Bozier answered them all.

In this strange relationship of man and swan we have The Prince, danced by Dominic North, who appears slight against the muscular, aggressive swan, but that is part of the story. He opens as the pampered heir to some undefined throne with hordes of staff attending every need - even brushing his teeth.

He is lord and master of all he surveys yet when it all goes regally pear shaped and he heads to the lake to end it all he finds a fascination in the swan and from dominating all around becomes the dominated, giving himself to the aggressive leader of the herd of swans.


Dominic North as The Prince and Will Bozier as The Swan

North manages the transition beautifully and brings real emotion to the role as we see his world, and perhaps his mind, falling apart. Logic tells us we are seeing a dream, a fantasy as the swan finally dies protecting the Prince from the herd, the 14 strong corps of male swans.

Logic is easier to be persuaded otherwise in the classic ballet, a fairy tale where a beautiful princess is turned into a swan by evil sorcerer Baron Von Rothbart, but Bourne’s version is modern, up to date, with no sorcery nor magic, no fairy tale, just a Prince and a Swan.

There is a troubled relationship between the Prince and his mother, The Queen, and we have a slightly disturbing and sexually charged violent episode with Oedipus undertones as a drunken Prince attacks the Queen, yet even there we see a tenderness for her son.

An even more dramatic attack on the Queen sees the end of The Girlfriend and The Prince committed to what we must assume is an asylum where the madness theme is explored further with the appearance of seven identical nurses who carry him to the huge regal bed that is to become his final resting place.

Her majesty the queen is given a serene elegance by Nicole Kabera, a queen who, should we say, seems a little demanding of male subjects. Perhaps she is auditioning for a king, who knows, but she is always has a regal, stately air of supreme confidence, selecting her . . . gentlemen . . . from guards and staff - until the appearance of The Stranger, who turns the tables and selects her.

And then we have the delight that is Katrina Lyndon as The Girlfriend. She is the rather downmarket, down-to-earth, bimbo who catches the eye and the heart of The Prince. Lyndon is full of amusing glances and asides and her performance in the royal box for the ballet is a comic gem with all the bugbears audiences suffer today.

We had the mobile ringing out it’s Nokia tones, the noisy sweets passed around and the dropped handbag. Chuck in the raucous laughing in inappropriate moments and she covered the whole gamut of irritations, although battering the baddy when he comes too close does require a box on stage, which is not a common feature these days.


Nicole Kabera, as The Queen with Dominic North's Prince saluting his mother

The ballet, by the way, is one of the comic interludes Bourne introduces into his pieces, light hearted moments, in this case a sort of micky take on an 18th century, stylized affair of a ballet with a butterfly, forest nymphs, a woodcutter and sort of grotesque collection of ugly baddies. The sort of thing long ago cast into the landfill of history.

Another comic moment is in the dance of the cygnets, when two pairs of male swans, give a rather tongue in beak interpretation.

And behind it all is the court’s Mr Fixit, The Private Secretary, danced with Establishment stylishness by Glen Graham. He is determined to end the relationship between Prince and Girlfriend, finally paying her off at the Swank Bar nightclub – a turning point in the Prince’s life, turning him to suicide.

There is tremendous support from the ensemble of 21, fourteen men and seven women, who dance superbly and in perfect unison in the ensemble pieces – which can be very disconcerting when they become a herd of menacing swans.

There is a moment in the waltz in Act 1 when the angular movements appear not quite in sync with the music – closer inspection shows they are indeed perfectly in time, and what you are seeing is an unnerving optical illusion, which is a clever piece of choreography.

Indeed, choreography throughout is superb. Bourne, Brotherson and lighting designer Paule Constable, have looked again at Swan Lake and this is a new production. We are told that the choreography has changed, although unless you are an expert dancer or ballet notator, I suspect no one will notice although the use of technology with video of flying swans is both dramatic and effective, giving purpose to the overture, and later The Prince’s troubled mind.

Brotherston’s designs of both set and costumes, as always, are stunning, and, I may by wrong, but I believe the sunken travellator at the rear of the stage to represent the drop down to the lake is new and effective.

Constable’s lighting is a mix of stark and subtle with a tremendous use of shadows on back and side walls creating images to enrich scenes and emotion – a design full of lessons for any would be lighting designer.

This new production has enhanced the old, keeping the essence of the ground-breaking original but with an added polish, a glint of a new highlight here and there. A quarter of a century on it is still as powerful, dramatic and original as ever. It  has lost none of it’s magic, is still the benchmark in contemporary dance –  the long, enthusiastic standing ovation said it all. One for everybody's bucket list. To 16-02-19

Roger Clarke


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