Iconic is a serially misused superlative that has slipped from the elite Greek pedestal of literally representing the characteristics of an icon and has come to describe the mass of the merely admired. Casually googling those in popular culture described as iconic one quickly comes across David Bowie and Justin Bieber: I wonder whether the cap fits quite so well in either case? Googling the adjective in association with Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake brings approximately 115,000 results and just reading through the first digital page gave me iconic indigestion. It seems that many writers reach for this epithet as their comfort blanket to describe this modern ballet, but is it Bowie, or Bieber?
There can be little quarrel with asserting that here is an enduring modern classic. Revived regularly since its auspicious world premiere – at this theatre – in 1995, it comes back time-and-again, to widespread acclaim. The icons of our age are brands (googling the words iconic and Apple logo brings 71 million results) and the popularity of Bourne’s Swan Lake – regularly recharged by these revivals, permanently boosted by its perennial association with Billy Elliott (and Adam Cooper) and aligned to the most famous of all ballet titles – must surely rank it amongst the most recognisable cultural brands of the past 25 years.
This new revival carries the strapline, The Legend Returns, and it is a significant refurbishment, most obviously in a rewired lighting design by Paule Constable that creates powerful, gothic imagery with diverse shadow effects, and also in utilising advanced technology in the set design and gimmickry. The fact of Bourne’s Swan Lake being such a recognisable brand is achieved through the marriage of style with substance; and the distinctive edge that sets it apart from countless other stagings of Tchaikovsky’s timeless ballet is substantially derived from Lez Brotherston’s memorable designs, which have come back stronger and wittier than ever.
29 cast members make their New Adventures debuts in this season, bringing fresh energy to Bourne’s revitalised choreography. A poignant reminder of a former dancer, Jonathan Ollivier – so horribly killed on his way to prepare for another role at this theatre, in August 2015 – was present in a single rose resting above the photograph of him – as The Swan – that graces the entrance to the orchestra stalls. Tragically, the original Prince, Scott Ambler, also died, earlier this year, and every performance in this season is to be dedicated in memory of these two stalwarts of the New Adventures family. Charismatic performers, outstanding dancers; fondly remembered.
The 29 new recruits come from every major UK dance school covering ballet, contemporary dance and musical theatre. The talent is extraordinary and with this press night coming some way into the run, the performances are superbly honed. Bourne’s group choreography – whether at the ball, in the park, the seedy club (with the double entendre, portmanteau title of Swank) or by the prince’s bed of nightmares – is the work’s beating heart and his intricate, flowing patterns of movement are tightly performed by this young ensemble.
Matthew Ball was selected by his near namesake to perform the dual role of The Swan and The Stranger, taking a sabbatical from The Royal Ballet to do so. With so many young men striving to carve a dance career away from ballet, it seems a pity that a dancer with so many riches already at his disposal should take this coveted role in another genre but he is following in similar footsteps (not least those of Adam Cooper). Ballerinas often give a more effective interpretation as either Odette or Odile and so it was for Ball, whom I felt marginally more charismatic as The Stranger than The Swan (dancing barefoot for such long periods in the park scene must have been novel). Nonetheless, Ball danced sensationally with a seductive mix of ebullience and elegance.
Liam Mower brought that strong sense of a life lacking purpose, racked with doubt and vulnerability, to the other starring role of The Prince, which is almost ever-present (there are seven scenes before we encounter The Swan). Nicole Kabera was a Queen straight out of Hollywood, a hot mix of Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn, the former perhaps suggested by the presence of a Monegasque princess at the ball, and her regal haughtiness was compelling, although she appeared much too young to have The Prince as a son. Glenn Graham was a suitably conceited and disdainful Private Secretary, habitually using – as did the Queen – the fourth wall as an imagined mirror. And, Katrina Lyndon succeeded in both the comedy and sentimentality of The Girlfriend, although that mixed caricature of dizzy blonde as an unsophisticated interloper in the Palace is ironically, nowadays, a more uncomfortable situation that perhaps it was, back in 1995.
Uber is a word with a not dissimilar meaning to icon – denoting an outstanding or supreme example of a particular kind of person or thing. It’s also a mould-breaking brand, a business that has redefined its sector and – in many ways – Bourne is the uber choreographer since he has done more than anyone over the past 25 years to shift the dance theatre paradigm and it was this work that essentially defined the new model and provided the impetus to fly higher still. Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake still wears well and appears as fresh as ever. For all these reasons (and more) it is one of very few modern classics in any dance genre that we might justifiably elevate to the iconic: definitely more Bowie, than Bieber.