Swan LakeWho could forget that climactic ending of Billy Elliott as Billy, no longer a little small-town tap-dancing boy, triumphantly leaps across the stage as Tchaikovsky’s score pounds in our chests. That magical moment didn’t however take Stephen Daldry’s film released in 2000, to catapult Matthew Bourne’s production of Swan Lake into the limelight. Bourne’s innovative and radical interpretation of the famous Russian ballet had in fact already been playing since 1995 and was one of the most popular ballets in the history of London’s West End. It eventually went on to tour in Broadway, Los Angeles, Europe and Japan, winning an Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production in 1996 and three Tony Awards in 1999 for Best Choreography, Best Costume Design and Best Director of a Musical.

Matthew Bourne is now one of UK’s most successful directors and choreographers. Coming from a dance background having danced professionally for fourteen years, Bourne went on to launch his own company, Adventures in Motion Pictures, for which productions including Swan Lake, Nutcracker!, Cinderella and The Car Man, created new audiences for dance. Bourne tapped into creating a modern style of ballet moving away from rigid ballet forms and classical storytelling to a merging of popular styles and an injection of lively drama and humour.

Bourne’s Swan Lake is a bold, dynamic and clever interpretation. Bourne throws in elements of jazz, modern dance, Latin (including an energetic paso doble set to Tchaikovsky’s Spanish Dance) as well as ballroom and folk. He even parodies traditional ballet movements with his pantomime set-up where a fairy princess falls in love with a huntsman donned in lederhosen. Even the originally delicate choreography of the Dance of the Little Swans becomes an opportunity to mock the point movements of the tutu-clad female corps of past productions. Most significantly, Bourne subverts the notion of swans being gentle, gracious and feminine creatures. In his adaptation, swans are depicted as aggressive, arrogant and distinctly masculine. Bourne’s entire flock comprises a group of powerful bare-chested men complete with white plumage strutting the stage in long, lean movements; it’s enough to make Marius Petipa stir in his grave. But what a sight to behold! The choreography of the swans indicates acute observation of the intriguing bird. Bourne stylises each and every movement; the crane of the neck, the cock of the head, the stretch of the wing span, the nuzzle and the coiling of the body, and intertwines it with the grace and elegance of ballet to form a truly unique style of its own. The impact of seeing an ensemble of male swans leaping across the stage is a wonderful contrast to the accustomed line-up of points in a chorus line, and also enhances the homo-erotic edge that already exists to the central relationship of the narrative.

Replacing the famously sought-after role of Odette is the lead male Swan who also plays the part of the rugged and flamboyantly flirtatious Stranger who gate-crashes the Queen’s ball. The role of the Prince is retained however he becomes the main focus of the story as the repressed character who suffers from his mother’s lack of attention, approval and love. Instead of the evil sorcerer, Rothbart, or his enchantress daughter, Odile, the antagonists are the Queen who shuns from her son as well as the main body of swans who resent one of their own deserting the flock. Bourne’s changes to the narrative turns the focus away from the ethereal notion of the half animal-half human longing for human love but to the far more real and universal themes of rejection, repression and jealousy. There is also an interesting love triangle when the Stranger, who the Prince recognises as his beloved Swan, seduces the Queen at the ball.

Alan Vincent as the Swan and Stranger is brilliantly cast with his physically striking and commanding presence as is Christopher Marney as the Prince, whose boyish looks and slightness convey a sense of vulnerability which is essential to the character and the basis of the relationship between the lovers. Marney together with the Queen gracefully played by Saranne Curtin have the most demanding roles in terms of theatric prowess where emotion has to be simply expressed through facial expressions, mime and gesture. Gesture especially becomes of crucial importance and takes on a style of choreography of its own. Here, there is no floundering of arms but rather very concise and accurate movement which effectively becomes the character’s dialogue. The emotional pas de deux’s between the Prince and the Queen and the Prince and the Swan is balanced out with lighthearted moments played out by the dizzy blonde Girlfriend (Nina Goldman), who becomes an opportunity for Bourne to add humour to the otherwise tragic undertone.

The dramatic narrative speedily unfolds with effective set changes masterminded by Lez Brotherston who also designed costume. A screen projecting the illusion of a solid brick wall, with a gradual lighting change, allows the wall to become translucent to the eventual revelation of the swans, working beautifully with the first bars of the Dance of the Swans creeping in.

Bourne’s production is thrillingly dramatic and beautifully choreographed and although Tchaikovsky’s timeless score is played out through speakers rather than a live orchestra, it still somehow manages to reach out and pull us in, transcending any disbelief about Princes falling in love with swans.

Matthew Bourne's SWAN LAKE

The Capitol Theatre, Sydney
Dates: 21 February - 18 March, 2007
Times: Wed - Sat @ 8.00pm, Sun @ 6.30pm; matinees Sat @ 2.00pm, Sun @ 1.00pm and Wed 28th @ 1.00pm
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 136 166 or www.ticketmaster.com.au