November 20, 2013

Matthew Bourne’s Swans Fly South for the Winter

             This past weekend, I travelled to Manchester by way of a very convenient two-hour train journey. You might be wondering what this has to do with London-related events, the chosen theme of this blog. Well, not only was I in Manchester to visit my relatives, but a viewing of Matthew Bourne’s production of Swan Lake also featured on the agenda. Swan Lake will be coming to London’s dance theatre, Sadler’s Wells, on December 4th, but I had the opportunity to see it firsthand up north at The Lowry Theatre.

             I openly attest to the fact that I am a fan of Bourne’s, having previously seen his ballets Nutcracker! and Sleeping Beauty, the former at The Lowry and the latter at Sadler’s Wells. However, Bourne prefers to classify Swan Lake as contemporary dance/theatre rather than ballet. Bourne is a British choreographer and director and is the recipient of five Olivier Awards and the Tony Award, an award to recognize excellence in Broadway theatre, for Best Choreographer and Best Director of a Musical. He was the Artistic Director of his company, Adventures in Motion Pictures, from 1987 to 2002. Alongside co-director Robert Noble, Bourne erected his current company, New Adventures.

             Swan Lake has been running strong for 18 years since it first debuted in 1995 at Sadler’s Wells and it still continues to challenge our ideas of typical gender roles today. Bourne chooses to cast all-male swans, with not a female swan in sight. To some, the idea might seem laughable, but what this new role designation creates is an aggressively charged and highly athletic performance, something that simply would not have been possible with the traditionally feminine tutu-clad swans. However, music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in all its perfection is not tampered with despite Bourne’s otherwise modern twists.

             The original Swan Lake storyline follows Prince Siegfried, who falls in love with Odette, the Swan Queen. Bourne’s Swan Lake is less about love than about affection. Referred to as The Prince (Sam Archer when I attended) in Bourne’s rendition, he is stunned by the powerful beauty of a male swan (Glenn Graham when I attended) and they quickly form a mutual bond. The Prince is often rejected by his mother, The Queen (Michela Meazza when I attended), but The Swan offers him a new sense of purpose and direction for reciprocated fascination. Swan Lake has been characterized by some as homoerotic, but the onstage chemistry between The Prince and the Swan defies sexual orientation and should be translated as undeniable in-“Bourne” talent on the part of the dancers, regardless of underlying inclinations.

Sam Archer pictured as The Prince (left) and Jonathan Ollivier as The Swan (right), photo courtesy of London Calling
             I was enraptured by the very strong stage presence of the male swans with their toned chests, synchronized movements, and exceptional poise. I cannot diminish the female characters however, as their glitzy ensembles were tantalizing in their own right and their soft nature complemented the male figures’ abrasiveness. The original Swan Lake features Odile, the Black Swan to Odette’s White, an imposter to trick Prince Siegfried. Graham donned all black and leather trousers in Bourne’s masterpiece, shedding his powdery white skin and feathers to torment The Prince, slinking his way around the stage like a top-class seducer, everyone in the palace (and the audience) falling at his feet.

Photo courtesy of Show & Stay
             Whilst debatable if Swan Lake is indeed homoerotic depending on your standpoint, there is no question that it is erotic. My favorite scene occurs when The Prince is asleep in his room and swans suddenly crawl out from beneath his bed, their stretching arms the only discernable body parts upon first glance. They are soon accompanied by The Swan, who wiggles his way out from underneath The Prince’s sheets. The male swans’ arm movements are utter precision, especially when paired with the dancers’ conviction in their nuzzling, fighting, hissing, and squawking. Throughout the performance, they imitate the gracefulness of actual swans while preserving a pristine composure, even in the face of excessive amounts of exertion.

             Bourne creates subtleties in his work and pays inordinate attention to detail. The eyes have to overcompensate in order to keep up, because Bourne visually overloads the audience, making it nearly impossible to capture everything going on at any given time. It could be observed in a sly look or a mini scene captured within a bigger scene. Bourne also likes to incorporate elements of humor in his work, as evident with the role of The Prince’s girlfriend (Kerry Biggin when I attended). During a ballet within the actual ballet, her phone goes off with an all too recognizable tone, much to the chagrin of The Queen and The Prince. Popular culture such as this is easily identifiable, with flashes of paparazzi’s cameras and the pink neon flicker of the Swank Bar sign. The props earn a rightful place on stage just as much as the dancers. I had to reign myself in to remember that I was watching a dance performance.

The Lowry Theatre in the background with my grandparents aptly and unknowingly featured in the foreground
             The only part of Swan Lake that seemed to drag on was the 20-minute intermission, because the entire show glided effortlessly from its triumphant start to its heart-wrenching conclusion. The performance is grossly absorbing and all of its magic comes just in time for Christmas. The Lowry was surrounded by stalls of Christmas treats and goodies outside and the Lowry Outlet Mall just across the way already had their silver trees and shimmering lights out on display. After the performance, all I could do was sing the praises of Swan Lake,over a plate of fish and chips no less!

             The Lowry proved to be full to the very back row, so book to see Swan Lake in London here and view the show’s official website hereSwan Lake will run at Sadler’s Wells from December 4th to January 26th until the swans take flight for their next destination.

             [Author’s Note: I mentioned briefly in an earlier post that I contribute to my university’s online newsletter, The GazelleAs well as remaining a staff writer, I now also hold the position of Arts and Entertainment editor. Today, December 10th, I can proudly announce that we have released our second print edition, where my above review of Swan Lake has been published.]

The Gazelle pictured against the Christmas tree that is currently adding festive cheer to my flat

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