Historical appeal of Swan Lake

Simon ParkinMatthew Bourne's fabulous Swan Lake comes to Norwich in September. Simon Parkin investigates its historical appeal.Simon Parkin

Stop and ask 10 random people in the street to name a ballet and there is a good chance that eight or nine of them - possibly even all 10 - would name Swan Lake.

Originally written by Tchaikovsky in the late 19th century, the fantastical romantic fairytale about the love of a prince for a princess who has been kidnapped by the evil sorcerer and turned into a swan, has come to be viewed as the epitome of ballet. From its lush music to the iconic dance of the four swans, it is the one ballet everyone knows.

In fact you could argue that the piece has become so well known that, like any artistic masterpiece, it was in danger of becoming a little too familiar, a victim of its own success.

However in 1995, British choreographer Matthew Bourne undertook a radical reinterpretation of the holy grail of ballets.


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Thrilling, audacious and totally original, his legendary production transforms one of ballet's best-loved stories into a stylish, witty, poignant, contemporary tale with extravagant, award-winning designs by Lez Brotherston.

Perhaps best-known for replacing the traditional female corps de ballet with a menacing male ensemble, his version blends dance, style, humour, spectacle, character comedy and mime to create a provocative and powerful Swan Lake for our times. But it's one that initially put noses out of joint.

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'We used to have walk-outs when it was first performed,' admits the choreographer. 'Particularly when the swan and the prince started dancing together, people just used to get up and leave.

'I don't know whether it was the fact that it was two men dancing together that they felt uncomfortable with or whether that was just the final straw for them, I don't know for certain. But, perhaps not surprisingly, a lot of people felt Swan Lake was something you just didn't tamper with. Still there were a lot of very mixed expectations. I think there were many who thought it would be a big send-up of the ballet rather than a serious interpretation.'

Many beg to differ. Since its world premiere at Sadler's Wells, Bourne's breathtaking and sexy version has become the longest running ballet in the London's West End and on Broadway. It has collected over 30 international theatre awards including three Tonys for the Broadway production and has been widely acclaimed as a landmark production on the international stage. It has also enjoyed four successful tours in the UK and is about to be staged at Norwich Theatre Royal as part of the latest revival by the choreographer's company, New Adventures.

'It has proved very popular over the years,' says Matthew. 'We can go into the history of it a lot really, but it changed my life that piece. It took us to different places, it took us all over the world, it took us to the West End, to Broadway and all around the country. It started that regular touring thing we do now and started to build up our audience and our following for all the other pieces we've done. Without Swan Lake I wouldn't still be here, doing what I'm doing.'

So how did Swan Lake come to so captivate audiences? For all its enduringly hypnotic appeal Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake represents something of an enigma.

Unlike its two successors, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, which were written to precisely planned scenarios by the choreographer Marius Pepita and first performed in sumptuous productions in St Petersburg, Swan Lake was composed to a conventionally loose-limbed libretto for the less prestigious Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.

When it was first performed on February 20, 1877 it was actually poorly received, due to the dull costumes and scenery, the unusual choreography and a rather mediocre orchestra. The production also departed from the traditional Russian format of ballet where the story was always rather poor with just enough plot to be a background for the virtuoso dancing; Tchaikovsky's ballet, on the other hand, had a strong emotive storyline that much of the audience could not follow.

It wasn't until 18 years later - and after the death of its composer - that it was finally staged in St Petersburg, and became a universal classic. Less is known about Swan Lake's genesis, composition and performance than about any other major work by Tchaikovsky. The complete ballet and the familiar Suite from it were only published posthumously. Tchaikovsky himself appears to have been largely unaware of the magnitude of his achievement in conceiving this score which has come to represent the very essence of balletic art.

The original story tells of a prince named Siegfried and a princess named Odette. Odette is kidnapped by the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart who turns her into a swan by day but allows her to return to her human form as the night falls. The curse will be broken however when someone sacrifices their life for the Swan Princess or if a Prince declares eternal fidelity to her.

Bourne's Swan Lake was created in 1995 when the British Royal family were in the spotlight. Obvious nods to this can be seen in the use of corgis - well known for being the Royal family's favourite pet - and the Prince's girlfriend in the story is not unlike Sarah Ferguson. However the most talked about innovation of this modern version is the casting of a male dancer in the coveted role of Odette/Odile known as 'the Swan'.

'The idea of a male swan makes complete sense to me,' says Matthew, 'the strength, the beauty, the enormous wingspan of these creatures suggests to me the musculature of a male dancer more readily than a ballerina in her white tutu. It was always 'what if the swans were male?' and 'what if the Royal Family slightly resembled a modern family we would recognise in more modern times?'.

'By the time I made it in 1995, the newspapers were full of Royal scandal.

'These days we don't really get anything like that but back then it was every day, Diana, Fergie and Charles and Camilla all the time, it was all about the difficulties of being in the Royal Family. So a troubled prince didn't seem so far away from the truth, a prince who couldn't be with the person he wanted to be with seemed to be a story we could tell.'

The success of Swan Lake opened the artistic floodgates for Bourne who went on to remake countless other classics. The Car Man, Nutcracker!, Edward Scissorhands and Dorian Gray - which was staged at the Theatre Royal in 2008 - all followed, many garnering lavish praise.

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake is at Norwich Theatre Royal from September 9-11. Call 01603 630000 or visit www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

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