Thursday 18 January 2018

Dance: Finding a beast in the ballet

GLIDE ON: Jonathan Ollivier performs as the swan in Matthew Bourne's production of Swan Lake.
GLIDE ON: Jonathan Ollivier performs as the swan in Matthew Bourne's production of Swan Lake.

Julia Molony

Jonathan Ollivier is a tall, Roy Keane lookalike, with a buzz-cut and tattoos. He is also the lead swan in Matthew Bourne's groundbreaking production of Swan Lake – now almost 20-years-old, still touring to rapturous acclaim, and soon to arrive in Dublin.

Bourne's re-writing of the classic ballet punctures the high-romanticism and fantasy elements of the original and grounds it in sharply observed, affecting emotional truth. But Bourne's real flash of genius was to swap the all-female troupe of swans for male dancers. The point was not a men-in-skirts parody, but to create a realistic, animalistic rendering of the swan. Ollivier and the other dancers, who perform as swans, are the embodiment of this principle. Muscular, athletic and powerful, their swans are formidably masculine. By turns graceful, ungainly, elegant and sinister, they uncover the beast in the bird.

Ollivier was trained in both classical and contemporary dance, but "my dream was to be a ballet dancer", he says. He's one of Bourne's regular stable of dancer-actors. He's danced with classical ballet companies, but also played the Patrick Swayze character in Dirty Dancing. He likes the fact that, compared to a classical company, working with Bourne allows him to act.

"We have more range in what we can do as actors," he says. "In a classical company it's very regimented."

He grew up in Northampton and got into dancing when he followed his older sisters to class near his home. It was "a little dolly-dinkle dance school on the side of Tesco's", he says. His mum used to drop his sisters off and take him away while they did their classes until one day "the teacher said, why don't you just leave him here and then you can go and do your shopping".

He started off Irish dancing. "I grew up in quite an Irish area. My sister used to do competitions, but I hated it because I found the teacher quite scary," he says.

Etta Murfitt's professional path was also set after she took a dance class when she was a kid and fell in love immediately. She is associate director of Bourne's company New Adventures and, since Matthew himself is in America launching another show, she is responsible for re-launching his most famous production. She's more than qualified to do so, since she's been involved in Bourne's Swan Lake since its inception.

"I'm involved in the creation of all the pieces and now I restage all the existing work and collaborate on new rep," says Etta.

She was also instrumental in helping bring Bourne's original idea, of creating a new story to accompany Tchaikovsky's beautiful score, to life.

She explains that the inspiration behind Bourne's idea was twofold. Instead of a fairytale story about love and death, Bourne was inspired partly by the true life of the composer, who was a closet homosexual whose life was limited by his unfulfilled desires.

The retelling of the Swan Lake fable focuses on a prince in search of love, emotionally estranged from his cold mother, and cowed by his obligation to the crown, for whom the swans become symbolic of free expression.

"When it originated there was a very strong idea to tell a tragic story in a way, that of course related to what happened to Tchaikovsky," says Murfitt. "But the story when it was first done was also about the turmoil that was going on in the British royal family at the time of Charles' and Diana's separation." The result is a subjective, developed way of looking at the prince's story uncovering his loneliness, isolation and his fears.

As the swan/stranger, Jonathan must convey natural, spontaneous free expression, both as an animal and a man. His role is comparable to the Odette/Odile character in the original, but here, instead of playing a good and bad princess, his duality of character is man and beast, swan and stranger.

Nonetheless, taking on one of the starring roles in such a physically demanding production takes its toll. "There's a lot of jumping barefoot so your feet tear open. It's maintaining yourself ... being a bit sensible," he says.

It's not the rigours of the tour, however, that Jonathan finds hardest, but balancing life on the road with time with his young son. Opposite Jonathan, is Madeleine Brennan, a former Royal Ballet dancer now in her 40s and greatly pleased to still be finding prima roles to play at a stage of her career where many of her contemporaries have long since retired, retrained and are established in careers as estate agents.

The Queen is not just a female lead, but also a fascinating character to play. "There's a lot of complexity there," she says.

For Madeleine, working with Bourne has been a boon to her repertoire, allowing her to draw on her acting skills as well as her dancing expertise. In classical ballet, she says, "sometimes the audience can feel like they are watching a piece of art, which is beautiful but somehow unobtainable, but I think what Matt's done is make it very real and raw to people ... that's what makes it so successful with an audience that isn't necessarily a dance-going audience.

"He's a visionary I think ... he knows how to make it populist but also charming and magical and the audience feel transported."

Matthew Bourne's 'Swan Lake' is at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre from Feb 25, 2014 to March 1. Booking at

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