I suppose that I should start by crediting Tchaikovsky for the best-known ballet of them all – Swan Lake, first performed to audiences back in 1875. Since then generation after generation of little girls have grown up wanting to dance the role of Odette, or least wear the magnificent breathtaking swan tutu. However, since 1995, it’s Matthew Bourne’s name that has now become synonymous with Swan Lake, due his audacious transformation of the performance by replacing the all-female corps-de-ballet with an all-male one. The impact is stunning; gone are the beautiful, delicately tutu-ed and fragile swans, and in their place, dark, powerful and menacing beasts. Whilst keeping most of the performance elements the same as the original, Bourne has twisted the plot to make it wittier, more emotive and certainly a lot more darker.

The last performance of Swan Lake I saw was performed by the English Youth Ballet, calling on the talents and charm of young ballerinas from local ballet schools to dance in the ensemble. It was conventionally delightful.  Bourne’s version however, takes the performance to another level, exploiting the male strength and energy, and incorporating modern dance moves into the traditional choreography.  The story is injected with humour, particularly in the first act, which appears in many details, such as a corgi, a sign by the lake reading ‘Do Not Feed the Swans’, and a comical performance by ‘the girlfriend’ at the theatre.

The protagonist of the story is the prince (Dominic North), who we are introduced to in the opening scene as a child, having a nightmare about a swan. His mother, the queen (Nicole Kabera), comes into the room, but coldly refuses to offer him any comfort. We soon discover that as the prince grows up, he feels imprisoned by the responsibility of his royal duties, and is seeking something else – love, freedom? He is attracted by a bubbly, common young woman (Katrina Lyndon), who briefly becomes his ‘girlfriend’, until he sees her being paid off by the private secretary (Glenn Graham). Drunk and in despair, and after further rejection from his mother, the prince attempts to kill himself by throwing himself into a lake. He is stopped, however, by the appearance of a flock of swans, and quickly becomes enamoured by the lead swan (Will Bozier). Is it his imagination? Does the swan represent his desire for love and freedom? It’s clear that he is losing his sanity.

The second half of the performance is more shocking and passionate, as we see the prince lose his grip on reality. Jealous of his mother’s easy affection for young men, manifested by the appearance of the stranger (Bozier) at a royal ball, the prince feels betrayed by all those around him. The dancing becomes more powerful, synchronised and intense. The breathless, dramatic conclusion on opening night led to a very appreciative and worthy standing ovation by the full house, through tear-stinging eyes.

What more can I say? The dancing was fresh, invigorating and visually brilliant and the audience was mesmerised  throughout. The set, lighting, cinematic effects, score and gorgeous costumes created the traditional elegance and charm, which contrasted superbly with the animalistic, carnal, hissing male swans. The energy created by this juxtaposition, with the underlying themes of doomed, forbidden love was simply electric.

Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is playing at the New Victoria, Woking, from Tuesday 30 April – Saturday 4 May 2019; part of the current international 2018-20 tour, including select venues across the UK, Asia and the US.

[Amanda Briggs May 2019]