Matthew Bourne and designer Lez Brotherston explain why they cast male dancers as the swans in their acclaimed reimagining of Tchaikovsky's famous ballet
'I spent hours watching swans in parks. Hitchcock's The Birds was a big influence'
Interview by Anna Tims
The Guardian, Monday 14 October 2013
Matthew Bourne - Creator
"I had daydreamed through many performances of Swan Lake, thinking the dancing tutus only ever conveyed one aspect of swans: their beauty gliding on water. I wondered what it would be like to use male dancers and bring out swans' aggressive, muscular side.
I don't come from a ballet background, so big classical works were never on my agenda. I realised that, because I was taking on such a familiar work, I had to come up with something original, with its own identity, for modern audiences – there's a power and violence in the music that doesn't come across in classical productions. Tchaikovsky was a troubled man who, partly because of his homesexuality, couldn't be the person he wanted to be. That made me think of royalty: they are forbidden by duty to be themselves. At the time, the early 1990s, royal scandals were making the papers day after day. The original story involves a queen trying to marry her son off against his will, so I used that as a starting point to explore the psychology of a prince trapped by royal protocol.
To capture the essence of the swans, I spent hours watching them in parks and on film, reproducing their often ungainly movements in my choreography. I was very influenced by Alfred Hitchcock's film The Birds, particularly the scene in which one bird lands on a climbing frame and, when the heroine turns, has suddenly turned into a menacing flock. I used this idea in a bedroom scene in the palace.
Lots of people couldn't accept the concept of male swans. My first choice of designer turned it down, and potential sponsors refused to put up funding. Adam Cooper, the Royal Ballet dancer, took a huge gamble in agreeing to play the Swan. People assumed it would be a sendup, with men in drag. But – although I wanted quirky, funny elements and there is a scene that parodies classical ballet at its worst – I knew it had to be moving. It's been interpreted as a homosexual story, but that wasn't the explicit intention. The prince's relationship with the swan is more about a repressed young man's need to be loved, rather than about any sexual desire.
On the first night I was terrified. After being clapped on to the podium before curtain-up, the conductor turned on his heel and walked out. There was an agonising limbo. But it transpired he'd just forgotten his score!"
Lez Brotherston, designer
I was doing Highland Fling with Matthew and knew he was planning a Swan Lake. I'd recently designed one for Northern Ballet. He thought that would put me off, but collaborations can lead to widely different things so I leapt at the chance. The only concept he brought to the table was that the swans would be men. I'd worked in film, theatre and dance so was used to radical interpretations, unlike many people in the ballet world. The idea seemed perfectly natural to me.Because we wanted the male dancers to bring out the swans' aggressive masculine side, it seemed stupid to cover them up, so we left their feet and torsos bare, to show their muscle movement. We thought of shorts for the lower half but then Matthew found a picture of an Indian dancer in baggy fringed trousers and he liked the motion of the fabric. So I took it away and came up with the idea of yards of shredded chiffon in the same style.
It was the most expensive production Adventures in Motion Pictures, Matthew's company, had ever undertaken and we were working to a tight budget. This meant we had relatively few dancers, so when men started getting injured in rehearsals we didn't have stand-ins.
At the first dress rehearsal, there were so many camera crews in the stalls they blocked views of the stage so we missed our first chance to see the show in its entirety. I remember standing alone in the dress circle thinking that, even if it was a flop, I'd achieved a gear change and wouldn't regret it. But, as it happened, it created such a buzz that I felt compelled to be there for every performance and drink it in.