Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Swan Lads - Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake, Bradford Alhambra 4 March 2014

The swans in Matthew Bourne's 2005 Tour     Source Wikipedia

Last night I saw Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake at the Bradford Alhambra. It was great entertainment: gripping drama, humour, spectacular choreography and powerful dancing. It is easy to see why this production won so many awards and ran and ran on Broadway and in the West End. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

When I reviewed Bourne's Sleeping Beauty on 6 April 2013 I asked "Why can't I be nicer to Matthew Bourne?" Well, this time I think I can. That does not mean to say that I don't have reservations about his work.  As I said last year:
"I have mixed feelings about Matthew Bourne. He has won so many awards. His ballets are dramatic. His choreography spectacular. I have seen Cinderella and Nutcracker as well as Sleeping Beauty. Two of those performances were at the Alhambra and the third was at the Wells. On each occasion the crowd went wild. And the crowd is part of the ballet. And yet...... The trouble is that one can sometimes be too clever by half and Matthew Bourne is very, very clever. He knows how to raise a laugh from the audience with the puppet baby Aurora. And then to make them shiver as she climbs the curtain. Brilliant! But is it ballet?"
Bourne's Swan Lake was even less like conventional ballet than his Sleeping Beauty with no tutus (except in a spoof romantic ballet with monsters and an axe-wielding maiden), hardly any (if any) dancing on pointe and no great ballerina roles but if ballet can be defined as dance drama there was plenty of that.

For those who have not yet seen the work there is a good synopsis in Wikipedia.  The fairy tale about a handsome prince falling in love with a princess under the spell of a wicked magician is jettisoned.  In its place is inserted a study of an insecure and unstable individual who is heir to his country's throne but cannot quite live up to the responsibilities for which he is being groomed. He is briefly distracted by a brassy, flashy blonde who makes a thorough nuisance of herself in the royal box during the performance of the absurd ballet and later snubs him when he shows up in his underwear in the Swank (Swan + K get it?) bar. His mother, the queen, (a Volumnia type who places public duty before everything including her son) denies him any signs of affection.  Haunted by nightmares of menacing swans who first show him love and then molest him he eventually flips.  He produces a pistol, shoots at everybody in sight, is committed to a secure hospital where he receives something like convulsive electric shock treatment and after more nightmare images of molesting swans he eventually dies. With its corgi on wheels it was the best propaganda for republicanism since the days of Cromwell. It is perhaps no coincidence that the ballet was first staged in 1995 just a few years after so called annus horibilis.

According to a notice board in the foyer of the theatre, the prince was danced by Liam Mower, the swan by Chris Trenfield, the queen by Saranne Curtin and the brassy flashy blonde by Anjali Mehra. I am not sure how accurate that was because the photos in the programme seem a little different from the faces I saw on stage (albeit from a distance and some height) and there was no cast list but whoever danced those roles last night did an excellent job. Growing up as I did in Molesey by the Thames I have no illusions about swans. Nasty hissing brutes that chased small dogs and indeed small boys they had far more in common with Matthew Bourne's boys in feathery breeches than with the sweet teenage girls of Ballet West last Saturday (see "Swan Loch - Ballet West's Swan Lake, Pitlochry 1 March 2014" 3 March 2014) or even Wayne Sleep's in his Big Ballet (see  "No Excuses! If the Dancers in Big Ballet can do it so can I" 21 Feb 2014).

There were two other stars of this ballet, Lez Brotherston who designed the sets and costumed. I was amazed how he transformed the prince's bed into a balcony from where the prince and queen acknowledged the cheers of the adoring crowds. Gently teasing the Bradford audience he dressed the brassy, flashy blonde in a pink dress that was very similar to several outfits that I spotted in the theatre bar. Clearly the blonde was cast as a "Brat-ford" lass. It is no wonder that she raised a massive cheer when she took her bow. The other star creative was Rick Fisher who arranged the lighting. The enormous shadows of the clinicians in the hospital and the swans in the last two scenes were striking and frightening.

There was so much in this ballet that I liked - the way Bourne reworked some of the familiar old tunes like the music to the 32 fouettés and the divertissements, the kiss that the prince gave to a bag lady who had come to feed the swans as the curtain fell on Act II - I am so glad I can be nicer to Matthew Bourne. He deserves some praise.

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