CRITICS have praised the latest revival of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake as ‘fresh and vigorous’ and ‘relevant’.
Bourne’s modern re-interpretation of the classical ballet was first staged in 1995 and the production is loosely based on the Russian romantic ballet with music by Tchaikovsky, in which an unhappy prince falls in love with a swan.
Bourne’s version is best known for replacing the traditional female swan ensemble with male dancers.
And so it is that Bourne, now 53, who reflects on a genuine cultural phenomenon which has transformed the lives of many, not least Bourne himself.
When Swan Lake premiered at London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre, did you have any idea it would go on to achieve such longevity?
Absolutely not; you couldn’t predict anything like that. I just remember in the rehearsal room having to get the thing done. It was a long piece – the longest by far that I had done up to that point – so it was about working away at just trying to do the best that we could do, and I wasn’t really thinking beyond that. Nonetheless, the venture must have prompted speculation in the dance world and beyond.
It did! There were all sorts of doubts expressed by people outside of the room, and I was well aware that there were two prevailing camps. One group was sure that the piece was going to be hilarious and a real send-up; they were the ones who couldn’t wait! There were others who kept saying: “You do know it’s a tragedy and you’re not going to mess around with it, are you?”
What did you think you had in the rehearsal room itself?
I remember all of us feeling that we liked the idea and that we had something that we thought could work but I don’t think we were over-confident. It was more about a sense of us working towards the same thing and a confidence simply in the fact that we liked the idea of what we were doing.
Can you recall the actual seedbed for the idea – the moment when the project itself actually took hold?
The very first idea was the thought of all-male swans. That had come to me watching the ballet long before I ever had a company or any possibility of doing Swan Lake at all; it was just a daydream. I remember being intrigued as to what that might do to the plot. It helped, of course, that I had seen the ballet itself a lot, so I had this memory of Royal Ballet dancer Anthony Dowell as the Prince wandering around in act one pretty much saying: “No, I will not get married: take her away; I want something else!” So I just thought: “Oh, there’s something going on in this story that is not being told.”
What was that precisely?
I think it was that feeling of someone who is yearning for something, which seemed to me a metaphor for someone who is possibly gay or who maybe just wanted a different kind of woman, or something like that. It definitely felt to me like something that was there in the ballet itself and not like anything I had invented. And if you considered Tchaikovsky’s own life and the turmoil and violence in the music, that also suggested something much deeper than a lot of pretty swans in a row.
Do you remember a click moment in performance when you sensed a hit on your hands?
Very much so. The bit I think that made the audience go completely quiet was the entrance of Adam (Cooper) as the Swan. All of a sudden, you felt people thinking: “This isn’t what we were expecting” – it suddenly went very quiet, very serious. And then I remember Cameron (Mackintosh, the producer) coming up in the interval and saying that he had to do this in the West End, and I thought, this is only the interval but, well, Cameron does know; there is something about his instinct! But actually it was once the second half got going and we were into the ball scene that it all become suddenly electric and then when Adam came on in his leather trousers (as the Black Swan) it really caught fire. At the end there was this spontaneous roar that the piece has got ever since, and that was honestly something I had not expected at all.
It must be infuriating when you hear the piece described as ‘the all-male Swan Lake’, since there are women prominently featured in the cast, albeit not as the swans.
Very much so and we’ve had some wonderful women over time, from Fiona Chadwick and Etta Murfitt onwards. The thing is, that misperception you mention is so easy to say and it makes sense to everyone but I do have to correct it, obviously. For one thing I don’t want people sitting there thinking in the scenes with the royals that they are watching men in drag!
I’m glad you reference the royals, who have to be mentioned given that they were in a very different place in 1995 from where they are now; for one thing, Princess Diana was alive at the time.
Yes, and she saw it, we believe. It’s funny: the royal aspect is the thing I thought everyone would pick up on because royal scandal was such a big deal when we opened Swan Lake. All that, I have to say, was quite inspiring in a way since one felt there was a story going on in real life as in Swan Lake having to do with a prince who couldn’t marry the person – in Charles’s case Camilla – he really loved and so had to marry a suitable young person in Diana for us all to fall in love with and not the woman he’d been in love with for years. All that seemed terribly sad in a way if you looked at it from a purely human point of view, so I thought there was a lot of sympathy to be had for a prince who couldn’t be what he wanted to be. There are so few people in society who are actually in that position.
Yes, it’s important that the royal aspect of your production not be taken merely as facetious or as a romp.
I do think the royal family really liked it and found it very sympathetic but no one is going to admit to that or say it publicly. I found out from Princess Margaret when she came to see Cinderella that she had the video and, as I say, we are pretty sure that Diana had been in. What’s intriguing, too, is that we were asked to do it as part of the Royal Variety performance apparently as a personal request from the Queen, so they certainly didn’t turn against it because of the subject matter.
How do you think the intervening years have refocused that aspect of the production?
Well, we have different sorts of royals now: the young princes seem more well-adjusted or shall we say ‘normal’, so I’m not sure we see them in quite the same way as we once looked at Charles. On the other hand, I do think there’s still very much a relevance here. There’s a lot of protection and grooming that still goes on; I mean, Kate didn’t just emerge as a royal fully formed. You still have to be a certain type of person to be part of the royal family, and it’s important that our story is set in an uncertain, unspecified time period. It’s as much about now as it was about then.
You went on from Swan Lake to devise numerous pieces, from Edward Scissorhands to Play Without Words, and Cinderella to Sleeping Beauty, but does this one occupy a privileged position simply because of what it represented for you?
I like to think of all those pieces you mention as children, and as with any child, you can’t pick a favourite. But of course I’m hugely grateful to Swan Lake and how could I not be? It changed my life and a lot of people’s lives in a way and it took us to Broadway and made us an international company. The fact is, I still love thinking about it and working on and still have a lot to say about it to the dancers. And it is amazing to think that in 18 years we’ve gone from a company of eight to one at the moment of 70, and that we’ve done more performances of our Swan Lake during those years than the Royal Ballet has done during its entire existence.
What you’re doing, presumably, with New Adventures is looking forward as well as back the entire time.
That’s exactly right. Swan Lake was the trailblazer, so much so that when we cast the show nowadays we find men whose whole ambition as dancers has been about appearing in this piece, whereas 18 years ago it was hard to get a cast of 14 swans together; now, hundreds come to each audition. But what’s most satisfying is that this hasn’t been our only successful thing. I wouldn’t feel the same about Swan Lake if this had been a one-hit wonder. I’m grateful for this show but also for all the ones that have come since, not least in terms of the public following myself and following the company. What more than that could any artist wish for?
n Swan Lake will perform at Theatre Royal, Nottingham, from Tuesday, March 11 until Saturday, March 15.
Tickets are available by calling 0115 989 5555 or by logging on to www.trch.co.uk