Sunday, 27 December 2009

Swans at Swan Lake

The last time I saw Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake was when Princess Diana was still alive and AIDS was less controlled than it is today. It was shocking. Fifteen years on, society has changed so much. It's still a beautiful, intelligent production and deserves its place as an iconic Xmas show. The Boxing Day audience at Sadler's Wells was made up of large multi-generational family groups, small girls in evening gowns and furs, tourists and couples on a night out. A good mix, which will ensure the ballet remains in the repertoire.

It's a good revival because it's up to date. In the ballet within a ballet scene the bimbette's mobile goes off in the Royal Box and some of the men in the audience quite possibly patronise sleazy clubs when they're not playing paterfamilias. Although Prince Charles still gets valets to put toothpaste on his toothbrush, and his lucrative business ventures get tax breaks, the satire's less pointed these days. The electric corgi still gets a laugh, though. The Queen's quite loveable, much more of a character than the Prince.

How much did this audience relate to the first scene (the overture) where the Prince writhes in bed? What causes his discomfort? Perhaps the swans offer an alternative to the formality of the palace. Or is there a darker sub-text? The swan choreography is brilliant, observed from nature. Fingers pointed, held at right angles the palm, arms curved, so they look like the necks of swans. The costumes too evoke the shape of swans – baggy feathered culottes for weight, chests barely covered, muscles exposed. Movements are strong, too, for swans are tough creatures you don't want to mess with in real life. Female dancers are tougher than they look, but an all-male swan corps is wilder and more primitive than the usual flutter of tutus. You think, Nijinsky with his priapic tail as the Faun, doing unspeakable things to the scarf and the earth.

The scene in which the swans mob the Prince is vivid - anyone who's ever seen how swans fight over bread knows how single-mindedly violent they can be. So it's all the more tender when the leading swan lifts the wounded boy with his head, not his arms. A swan's wings are for flight, the neck and heads for more subtle expression.

Fifteen years ago, society was different and thank goodness some things have changed. Thanks in no small part to Princess Diana defying mass hysteria, kissing Aids sufferers like the big swan kisses the broken Prince. Neither of them survives but at least they have moments of tenderness. So in many ways, it's a good thing that Bourne's Swan Lake can be marketed as feel-good family entertainment.

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