Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, Sadler’s Wells, London – review

And there it is, installed on the Wells’ stage until the end of January: Matthew Bourne’s version of Swan Lake. A proven attraction for audiences worldwide, a work studied in schools at GCSE and A-level, now in its 18th triumphant year – and a production which I saw again on Thursday night with blackest despair.

What, after all, is Swan Lake? My decades of experience with this marvel of late 19th-century Russian art – which I have seen honoured on its native heath, in China and Britain, massacred in Sweden, and variously misunderstood in many another location – suggest that, at its grandest and truest, it invites performances that honour Tchaikovsky, revere the Ivanov/Petipa text, are implacable in their demands upon ballerine, danseurs, soloists, corps de ballet, and can triumph over small misunderstandings (by designers, in particular), and ennoble those ensembles which respect it.

An enduring popularity has made it a cliché of ballet itself, and is owed to its heart-touching score, its emotional directness, its unfailing truth of image – no arabesque more heart-tearing than Odette’s, no bravura more glittering than Odile’s – and to the fantasy world of some dim Germanic court, to misty perspectives over a lake, and the promise of malign virtuosity to dazzle us as it dazzles its hero.

And everywhere, classic dance is the thing, in Odette’s grief, in Odile’s fouettés, in the elegance of its ensembles, and the haunting lines of swan-maidens. (Remember the Mariinsky’s courtiers in the first scene, Petersburg’s swans and national dances, Fonteyn’s grieving poses and Makarova’s intense line, Plisetskaya’s proud bravura, Semyonova’s grandeur.) Bourne rejects all this. The dance is boisterously idiosyncratic. The narrative reverses or degrades emotional attitudes. The staging caricatures – Tom and Jerry fashion – social behaviour. “Today” at its most blatant replaces that “once upon a time” which gives poetic narrative dignity. The hysterical or the crass – steps and dramatic argument – hold the stage.

Bourne’s present cast, led by Simon Williams’ haunted prince and Jonathan Ollivier’s vividly-drawn Swan, do admirably well by him. The orchestra is cunningly amplified. The design by Lez Brotherston is skilled. Swan Lake is notable by its absence.

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