Mathew Bourne / New Adventures
London, Sadler’s Wells
12 December 2013
Now approaching its 20th year of performance, Matthew Bourne’s re-imagining of the whitest of white ballets has become an established part of the dance theatre canon. Back in London after a three-year break, the current production reunites long-term Bourne collaborators with a fresh new flock of swans in a story that remains both modern and moving.
When Bourne’s version debuted in 1995, the use of male dancers as the corps of swans was a deeply radical innovation, but one that has always made a lot of sense in movement terms. The romantic presentation of the swans – delicate tulle-clad female dancers flocking together en pointe – has never seemed a fully accurate representation of these powerful beasts; Bourne’s corps dances the swans with a muscular, hissing aggression that is immediately closer to nature. The current cast are extremely well-rehearsed, producing some of the best ensemble work seen from the company in recent years, beating wings and leaping skywards in vigorous unison.
The non-avian members of the company have also visibly spent plenty of time in the studio, too. As the Prince (Simon Wells) accompanies his frosty mother on a series of mindnumbingly repetitive duties, cutting ribbons , naming ships and pressing endless flesh, he is greeted by flawless displays of regimented celebration. The precision of the unison here suggests an efficient, clinically-organised world in leaving no space for the Prince’s emotional needs. The arrival of the tackily-dressed, vulgar Girlfriend (Kerry Biggin) brings some much-needed sunshine to the court, but her messy self-expression leads to embarrassment and censure from The Queen.
It’s the titular swans that most light up the Prince’s life, vaulting onto the stage in their trademark ragged chiffon pants as he hits his lowest ebb. In addition to being stronger and more aggressive, Bourne’s bare-chested swans are more overtly sensual from the outset, pulsing with a manly physicality that is absent from the virginal tutu-clad version. This gives the lead Swan (Jonathan Olliver) the challenge of amping up the eroticism still further in the second act where he appears as a swaggering, leather-trousered man-whore ready to mate with everything at the Royal Ball. Fortunately, this is a challenge to which Olliver rises admirably, owning those trousers with just the right shade of animal arrogance.
Bourne leaves it to his audience to decide if the swans are real or simply figments of a neglected imagination; what’s clearly real is the Prince’s longing for affection and contact, ably portrayed here by Wells. If there’s a criticism to be made, it’s that we don’t see enough of the character in action; Wells extends beautifully into an achingly lonely solo in Act 1, but spends much of his time on stage remonstrating with either distant mother or his wayward girlfriend, leaving little time for either movement or character development.
The cast as a whole ably inhabit the Broadway-inflected neoclassical style that Bourne has made his own, along with all the frugging, vogueing and Flavor-Flaving that occasionally erupts into the material. The butterfly ballet-within-a-ballet in the first act continues to be one of the best-observed pastiches of the daft high-Imperial style that exists on stage, and the dance of the cygnets in act two adds a nice touch of levity.
Where Bourne hasn’t deviated from his source material is in the tragic conclusion – a sudden and violent one, perhaps rendered more tragic by the continuing possibility that the Prince’s feathery lover lives only in his head. I’m not ashamed to admit to a tear in my eye at the final curtain, or to thinking that it will probably be there next time I see the work, too.
Tickets – best availability is in January 2014.