Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Review of Swan Lake at The Theatre Royal Nottingham

Matthew Bourne's ground breaking and provocative re-imagining of the classical ballet piece Swan Lake was first staged at Sadlers Wells theatre in London in 1995. Historically it is the longest running ballet in the West End and on Broadway when it moved across the Atlantic and premièred to massive acclaim in 1998 in the USA. Since then the production has been shown on stages all around the world including, Turkey, Greece,  other major countries in Europe and in Australia, Japan and Los Angeles. The ballet has won over thirty international awards including three Tony's in the USA. It is now well documented that Matthew Bourne's main innovation was taking the female swans away as the corps de ballet and replacing them with aggressive, bare chested and powerful male swans in feathery breeches. It still works supremely well and one could say, has improved with age. The story has strong echoes of the traditional ballet and on one occasion Bourne has amusement by re-working a particularly difficult dance section usually performed by the tutu clad female corps as a frantic male dance. The whole ensemble works through this fresh and still new style Swan Lake with seemingly consummate ease. But then the grace of swans always shows as they glide effortlessly across the surface of the water with years and years of dedication and training powering them into action. As with swans so it is with this stunning ballet brought bang up to date.

This ballet demands extreme physical endurance and faultless technique and the dancers must be able to show a range of emotions that would easily grace a complex play like Hamlet. Because of the now famous male corps de ballet the work is sometimes mistaken for being all male. This is not the case. Bourne's ballet benefits from the top notch talents of both sexes. Swan Lake is about a prince who has lived a very restricted life bound up with unwanted royal duties and royal expectations and very little love – especially from his emotionally distant mother – the Queen. We assume the father figure is missing, particularly as the Queen openly flirts with the younger male members of the royal entourage. A superb performance from dancer Madelaine Brennan that moves from icy and distracted Queen to joyous then distraught throughout the evening.

When the prince (Simon Williams in a very moving and sympathetic portrayal) meets the main swan for the first time the flock are aggressive to him and, as swans are, very territorial. The emotional trigger for the story is that the swans are the same sex as the prince and psychologically represent qualities that he desperately wants to attain to. The prince character carries the ballet from beginning to end and his is the story of someone who is restricted in his life and needs love, not necessarily sexual love or even homosexual love but love that truly warms his heart and holds him tenderly in a tight embrace. A love that supports and encourages his needs. He is one confused prince, emotionally and sexually. These emotional needs are things he certainly doesn't get from his frosty mother or from his rather fake and fatuous girlfriend (Anjali Mehra – superb comic timing with a fine range of expression in dance and character) who thinks she has indeed met her prince. By the end of act one the audience are fully invested in caring about this lonely prince existing in his dull and repetitive royal world. To his mother, the erotically charged ice maiden Queen he is a major disappointment. But is she a villain? I think not as her character is just as entrapped as her unacknowledged son she constantly pushes away.

Bringing them both out of their tightly shut shells is the dynamic dancer Chris Trenfield as The Swan/Stranger. He is equally seductive in each role and the confusion that leads to madness in the prince's mind is well portrayed through the powerful music and dance especially at the superbly dramatic end. This re-working of a classic tale is the kind of ballet that you never want to stop. Matthew Bourne's touring production of Swan Lake is utterly flawless all the way through with surprise after choreographically dramatic surprise. The live orchestra is thrilling, the set design by Lez Brotherston is breathtakingly dreamlike and nightmarish in parts and Rick Fisher's lighting design and implementation is just astonishing in creating diverse mood after mood. No wonder New Adventures Swan Lake has won so many awards and one may wonder what Tchaikovsky would make of this jolting modern interpretation that began in 1875 as a small project to encourage small children to dance to some music about The Lake of Swans. I think he would very well approve – rather heartily. The Nottingham audience certainly totally appreciated the creative skills that  made Swan Lake such a triumph and demonstrated this with a standing ovation and several curtain calls.

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