Fully fledged modern classic

In unison: A lamentation of Matthew Bourne's all male swans. Pictures: Bill Cooper

Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake

Birmingham Hippodrome


THE controversy over Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is long gone with l’enfant terrible now well established as a modern classic.

It might still make the traditional ballet purists shudder and there is still a popular misconception that this is an all male Swan Lake, which, unless Bourne’s New Adventures company employs some particularly gifted make up artists, is patently untrue. but the fact it is still talked about 19 years after its debut is testament to its stature in the world of dance.

The piece is a rewriting of the Tchaikovsky ballet, using his score, although some sections are missed, others repeated and others reordered to fit in with Bourne’s retelling.

His version involves paparazzi, night clubs, dances dripping with sex and promise and, the reason for all that original fuss, all male swans turning the idea of a pure white clad, dainty, elegant and rather beautiful corps de ballet on its head.

Bourne saw swans as distinctly uncuddly, aggressive and rather unfriendly creatures so enter an all male corps of bare torsoed sinister lamentation of swans who throw down the gauntlet as soon as they appear.

The traditional Swan Lake Odette is transformed into a beautiful, fluttering swan with the eternal love of Prince Siegfried her chance of freedom. In Bourne’s version it is the Prince, danced majestically by Coventry born and former Birmingham Royal Ballet dancer Andrew Monaghan, who is seeking his freedom from an oppressive and somewhat dysfunctional family.

And rather than the beautiful Odette transformed to a swan he becomes infatuated with Bourne’s bad boy of a bird danced with magnificent macho aggression by Chris Trenfield.

Trenfield incidentally is no stranger to the Hippodrome and was in recent panto Dick Whittington and also the touring production of Les Misérables. 

The prince and the swan on their way to a fateful finale

The ballet has evolved over the years keeping it fresh and contemporary although the basic story remains the same with our Prince craving love and attention from his mother the Queen, a bit of a cougar in the modern parlance, danced beautifully by Carrie Johnson, who seems somewhat more interested in the guards, servants and assorted young men she comes across than her son. 

Then there is his flighty girlfriend danced with a sort of calculated innocence by Carrie Johnson who does not quite measure up to a potential princess in the eyes of either the Queen or her private secretary, danced by Paul Smethhurst, a fact made most clear when the Royal party head off to the ballet.

This is a clever scene with an unflattering parody of the sort of romantic ballets popular in the 18th and 19th centuries of which the traditional Swan Lake was at the pinnacle.

This is performed for both the audience and the Royal box where the girlfriend is out of her depth if only she knew it culminating in a Nokia moment as her mobile phone goes off mid-dance and ends by dropping her purse on to the stage.

Interesting to see how many people I the audience instinctively grabbed for their pockets as the distinctive ringtone sounded forth. 

The mood changes completely when the Prince heads to seedy disco bar Swanks where the dances become more Cabaret than ballet, jazz influenced modern dance with ladies whose dress, and dancing, might suggest they are of the night, as one might say. Having been thrown out for fighting he sees the secretary buying the girlfriend off.

The bar, the sort where you could imagine the carpets had that stickiness of down market nightclubs, contrasts with the later palace dance in a ballroom that would not have looked out of place in the Third Reich and there is a certain decadence about the dancing culmination in the arrival of a black clad lothario – Bourne’s Odile, the black swan clad in leather trousered human form.

Swanning around the disco at hot nightspot Swanks

He tries it on with every woman in the place, including the Queen, as the royal ball descends into night of drunken debauchery culminating in violence as the Prince attempts to shoot his mother and in the struggle his girlfriend is shot.

The ballet opens with the prince in bed and closes the same way. After treatment in an asylum he is led to bed and a nightmare of swans attacking both him and his version of Odette in what becomes a fight to the death.

As always the dancing from leads to ensemble is superb with a blend of ballet and contemporary all set off by Lez Brotherston’s breathtaking, larger than life sets taking full advantage of the Hippodrome's huge stage. Praise too for Rick Fisher who lit the production exquisitely. You only notice lighting in a production when it is either exceptionally bad or exceptionally good  and this was the latter, including some very clever creation of shadows on the back wall.

The whole thing is visually stunning, contemporary, vibrant and alive with a strong narrative, superb dancing and swans that are, frankly, a little disturbing. It also has touches of humour to lighten even the darkest moments; all in all a tribute to Bourne’s remarkable imagination.

Since 1995, give or take a couple of months, there has been a production playing somewhere in the world. Just now it is here so if you have never seen it now is your chance. To 15-02-14.

Roger Clarke


Audiences attending on 13 February will be treated to an extra special performance prior to curtain up of Swan Lake. Over the past few months, students from Stratford-upon-Avon College, Walsall College and Birmingham Ormiston Academy have been working closely with Dominic North, one of Matthew Bourne’s principal dancers, and Clare Palethorpe, a freelance dance practitioner, on creating a curtain-raiser.  The five minute performance piece inspired by Swan Lake will see 19 young men perform on the Birmingham Hippodrome main stage to nearly 1,800 people.    


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