Sunday 20 October 2019

Teary Swan Lake ...and not a dry eye in the house

Even if you suspect ballet isn't for you, this funny, sweet and heady genre-bending Swan Lake show will be, writes Ciara O'Connor

Will Bozier as the Swan is muscular, visceral - skin glistens, fascia ripples and flexes
Will Bozier as the Swan is muscular, visceral - skin glistens, fascia ripples and flexes
Will Bozier and Freya Field

Ciara O'Connor

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake made history when it burst onto the stage in 1995, replacing traditional tutu-ed ballerinas with a fearsome chorus of bare-chested male swans. Then, audiences had never seen anything like it; today, the production features dancers who grew up on it. For 23 years the show has toured on and off, to critical acclaim and sold-out runs - the current iteration, with new lighting design, tweaked sets and choreography (and a small mechanical corgi) feels grown-up and very 2019.

When the production first came to Dublin in 2014, it enjoyed a record-breaking run. And it's not surprising - as Bourne says, this is a country of myth. For this director obsessed by the idea and practise of storytelling, Dublin is "a magical place".

While the story of Swan Lake and its tormented royalty has been attributed to various German and Swedish fairy tales, we will recognise the terrible curses, humans trapped in swans' bodies and ambiguous endings from The Children of Lir. Yes, Bourne's production will feel right at home when it returns on February 26.

Audiences may no longer raise eyebrows at two male leads, but the production continues to surprise, in small ways (corgis on wheels) and big (hip-hop influenced choreography in a seedy nightclub). This is not a classical ballet, where tutu-ed dancers effortlessly leap across the stage as if it's the easiest thing in the world - in fact, those productions are hilariously parodied at one point: here you are confronted by the dancers' hard work.

Will Bozier and Freya Field
Will Bozier and Freya Field

It is muscular, visceral; skin glistens, fascia ripples and flexes. We hear the feet hitting the ground and heavy, laboured breaths. They are sometimes a heart beat, sometimes a metronome for Tchaikovsky's score. We hear the swoosh of the queen's stiff skirts as she sweeps away from her son. The show's polish, its extravagant design and set and costume, stops short of remoteness. This is theatre in its element.

Sex is everywhere and nowhere; with men dancing together with naked chests slick with sweat and leather trousers, with the absence of dialogue putting the entire emphasis on the body, eroticism courses through the show. It's easy to see why it's been called a 'gay ballet', which is something that Bourne doesn't deny although he feels it doesn't tell the whole story. Twenty-six-year-old Liam Mower, who plays The Prince, is less equivocal - and seems weary: "It's easy to think so, because the swan is a male. So you make the connection that he's fallen in love with a man - but at the end of the day, the swan's a swan; it's a creature. It's more about what he represents than what gender he is."

This determination to keep Swan Lake in the closet might seem anachronistic in 2019, but it does not seem to be born of fear of judgment or reprisal, but rather protectiveness of the production's other ideas.

The curtain rose on Bourne's first Swan Lake in the golden age of British royal scandal, where the idea of duty versus human desire was being hotly debated. A British prince marrying a mixed-race, American, divorced actress seemed impossible. It was 1995, the year of Princess Diana's explosive Panorama interview, when the daily news was filled with Charles and Camilla and Fergie and Princess Margaret. This was a royal family that felt fragile and chaotic, a far cry from the sleek and smiling Kates and Meghans of today.

For our audiences, in an Ireland gripped by a mental health epidemic for young men, The Prince is perhaps trapped less by his royalty than by his masculinity. He is not permitted weakness - by convention and by his own mother, who repeatedly brushes him off. And it drives him to the brink of suicide. The Prince's relationship with the swan isn't necessarily about sex, but the possibility of hope and redemption in the darkest times.

This is the reading that the dancers, in perhaps typical millennial fashion, seem most taken by. For Nicole Karbera, who plays The Queen, "It is these elements that has kept the production fresh and relevant as the times move on." She draws attention to the feminine, in a production where the conversation is usually about men: "For my characters, it's about having to present yourself in a certain way but deep down having a wild side - that as a woman, and a woman in charge, you're not allowed to have or show. And the idea of being a mother, but not motherly."

Bourne has a slightly different take on the production's enduring appeal; it's not the novelty of male swans, or the current preoccupation with mental health and the royal family: "In its simplest form, it's about someone's need to be loved - which everyone identifies with. And for [The Prince] in particular it's a need to be held. He doesn't get close to anyone, he's always being pushed away. And he's royal so no one goes near him... So when the swan wraps him in his wings, it's such a big, enveloping thing - and everyone feels it. [Swan Lake] hasn't got a message as such, but it's got a feeling that people really identify with. It captures people, and they start to read their own story into it. That's why people get emotional. And that's why it's still around."

These aren't the overblown delusions of a self-important director: when the curtain falls and the house lights come up, there are men, women and young teenagers wiping their eyes, stunned by their own emotion. It's a kind of a magic.

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake returns to Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from 26 February - 2 March 2019. Tickets are on sale now. For more information

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