Matthew Bourne's Swan LakeAs a work of theatre, Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake is an imaginatively realised vision, dramatically compelling and conceptually strong. However as a 'ballet' - in the strictest sense of the word - this particular performance was rather disappointing. While this reworked classic isn't pretending to be something it's not (Swan Lake won Bourne two Tony Awards for best choreographer and director of a musical after all), it's hard not to come to it expecting the precision and technical finesse for which the traditional version is so renowned.

After all the hype that has surrounded Bourne's production since its debut in 1995 (led by ex-Royal Ballet principal Adam Cooper, of Billy Elliot fame, as 'The Swan'), what I was anticipating most was the power of the dancing - in particular the imposing flock of male swans - sending chills down my spine. Unfortunately, there were significantly less of those chills than I'd hoped for. The flock was a rather motley bunch. As a group their level of classical training appeared considerably varied - hardly ideal for an ensemble often required to dance 'as one'.

From what I can gather, it seems the calibre of this current production isn't indicative of previous casts and seasons. Whether this is a result of complacency on the part of the company (lack of rehearsal, etc.), or simply an ensemble of lesser skill, is hard to say.

Bourne has copped flak on occasion for the limitations of his choreography and movement vocabulary, but overall, I don't feel such criticism is deserved. Bourne's interpretation of Tchaikovsky's cinematic score is impressive, particularly in the way it relates to the narrative, while his ability to convey character and states of mind through movement is, for the most part, deeply effecting. The Prince's (Simon Williams) solo of emptiness and desperation in Act I was, simply, beautiful. Williams is a superb dancer - his lovely, clean technique was a conspicuous delight. Here, as with Bourne at his best, the movement looked completely intuitive; physically, it totally captured the Prince's psychological torment without having to resort to melodrama.

There are plenty of humorous highlights. The production's hustle and bustle opening in particular had a real musical theatre feel - think 'Another Op'nin', Another Show!' performed to a 19th-century waltz, starring British royalty and their loyal subjects. There is but one set of pointe shoes to be seen throughout the entire ballet - used (by an ungainly sylph) to grotesque effect in the ballet parody scene, the royals' night out, while in the sleazy nightclub scene of Act I Bourne gives some majestic music a touch of raunch.

Though it has its striking moments, Act III drifts into something of a choreographic lull. The music of the black swan pas de deux in particular (which culminates with those famed 32 fouettés in the traditional version), asks for something so much more dynamic and precise than what is delivered. However, all is redeemed by the final scene: Bourne pares things back movement-wise to create a Hitchcock-inspired moment - the flock perched atop the Prince's bed; still, menacing.

As the Swan/Stranger, Alan Vincent is a captivating presence. Powerful and gentle in turn, he was completely convincing as the Swan - he embodied the bird's mannerisms, while his imposing wingspan lent a muscular grace to the role. The interaction between the two leads was seamless, and touching. As the compassionless, flirtatious Queen (actually somewhat Princess Margaret-esque), Saranne Curtin is a stunning actress, as well as an elegant, polished dancer.

The dramatic set and costumes - dominated by the black and white motif of the Odette/Odile-inspired Swan/Stranger - are magnificent. Dramatic, yet not overly complex, the 'look' of this production makes a huge contribution to its impact.

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake

Regent Theatre, Melbourne
Dates: Wed 11 - Sun 29 Apr 2007

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