Review: ★★★ Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, Sadler’s Wells

The impassioned story of Swan Lake,accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s flawless score, has become a festive classic on stages around the world. The classical ballet contains the infamous dual role of Odette/Odile, a challenge and highlight in the careers of female ballet dancers.It is not only a test of stamina and character performances, it is also technically extremely challenging: the famous 32 fouettés are part of ballet mythology,consisting of 32 sharp, whipped pirouettes which ideally stay in exactly the same spot on the stage.

Matthew Bourne’s re-imagining of Swan Lake is conceptually interesting, but doesn’t deliver anything near the majesty of the classical production, particularly when it comes to the technicality or vibrancy of the choreography. His recasting the famous female role and the equally famous female corps or chorus as male was certainly original, with the first performances in 1995, and it makes for striking stage imagery. Particularly good are the male pas de deux, involving the excellent Dominic North as The Prince and the dynamic Will Bozier as the Swan and the Stranger. These duets are muscular and energetic, combining the male dancers to carve out a dreamy sensuality in the Swan duet that contrasts with the raw eroticism of the tango-esque sequence with the whip-wielding, leather-trousered Stranger.

North is the absolute star of this ballet: the show only really seemed to start once he melted into a fluid and lyrical lament outside of a bar, which was at least twenty minutes after curtain up. North is a beautiful dancer, light, elegant and technically precise, a quality singularly lacking in the rest of this ballet. Quite where the blame should rest for this is unclear, and perhaps is best equally partitioned amongst the choreography and the training and rehearsal of the dancers. Either way, this production lacks sharpness and finish, the effect of which is messy and lazy. This is particularly prominent in the sections involving the male corps, which are incredibly heavy and dense, belying their supposed existence as graceful swans.It is difficult not to think of the corps of the classical ballet, who move with military precision, not a finger or a feather out of place or time.

The comparison is unfavourable for Bourne in other ways too, not least in terms of the narrative structure. In its classical iteration, the ballet follows the story of an unhappy Prince who chances upon a flock of swans whilst hunting. These swans are actually all women, who have been enchanted by the evil Rothbart, and who can only be saved by true love. The Prince swears his love to Odette, the white swan, but is fatefully led astray by Rothbart’s daughter, the black swan Odile, who causes him to revoke his promise to Odette with deeply tragic consequences.

In Bourne’s production, there is no Rothbart, which has the critical effect of leaving the swans as, well, just swans,which has unfortunate implications for the Prince and his proclivities, changing the narrative from enchanted love story to psycho-sexual horror show. The Stranger, effectively the black swan and danced by the same dancer, is then just a sexy stranger, with a link to the Swan tenuously forged with some face paint.

It makes very little sense, and the production descends further into obscurity when the corps of Swans appear in the Prince’s bedroom, the main Swan birthed from the mattress of the double-bed like something from a Cronenberg film. The Swan and the Prince are then attacked by the hissing, stamping corps, who have taken it upon themselves to damn this narrative of swooning bestiality, murdering the culprits in a tussle of kicking and biting.

The deeply ungraceful choreography, and the bizarre sketched narrative sit bluntly against the exquisite music of Tchaikovsky, which seems as a beautiful bird trapped in fat hands, singing yet squashed. Bourne’s production could have benefitted from removing itself from the original altogether, especially the score which it cannot match in artistry or elegance.There were moments in which the hissing and stamping of the dancers seemed to form its own percussive score, something which perhaps would have been a more fitting accompaniment to this piece, expressive of the rawness and the masculinity Bourne achieves with his recasting.

There are moments of fun and some pockets of good dancing, but if you want to see Swan Lake rather than an ugly duckling you can’t do better than the classical version.

Esme Mahoney
Esme Mahoney

Esme Mahoney is a graduate of Drama Centre’s MA Acting course, having previously studied English Literature at the University of Cambridge. Esme has been involved in productions as an actor, director, producer and stage manager – one of her most memorable experiences was as DSM for a production of Lord Of The Flies, in which she was chiefly responsible for putting flaming torches into the hands of children as young as twelve.


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