Matthew Bourne Q & A on Swan Lake

8 May 2011

Find out more about this Award-winning production


Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake has been called a ‘modern classic”. Did you have any sense when you were making it that it would still be around now?

Swan Lake is the most famous and beloved ballet in the world so there was a lot of resistance and concern when an upstart young company called Adventures In Motion Pictures (now New Adventures) and their choreographer announced it as their next project in 1995. Many people felt it to be overly ambitious and presumptuous, some thought it would be a “fun” parody and others could not even bare the thought of it, particularly when it was announced that there would be a flock of male swans rather than the iconic female swan maidens! Myself and the company, however, were quietly confident that we had an idea that could work, and there was a sense of excitement in the rehearsal room that was infectious and encouraging.
Nothing, though, prepared us for the incredible reaction to the piece when we finally got it on stage, and the subsequent West End, Broadway and International tours that followed. I guess the much talked about male swans and Lez Brotherston’s iconic design for them are at the heart of the continuing success of the piece. Nobody could imagine what a dancing male swan looked like. So that first appearance of Adam Cooper (who created the role of The Swan) was really the shock of the production. Here was a beautiful, wild, lyrical, menacing and totally masculine creature. The shock was that the idea worked.

Your production of Swan Lake is now in its 18th year. How has it changed in that time?

The production has continued to grow and develop over the years. It was only originally intended for a two week season at Sadlers Wells followed by a UK Tour. The DVD with the original cast, which is still available, was shot at the end of this tour in 1996. Most people think that this is the definitive version, but of course it was much changed after this. First for the West End in the summer of 1996, and then again for Broadway two years later. However, since that time, although it has been frequently revived, my involvement has varied, due to my other commitments with the company and my forays into Musical Theatre. So for the first time in many years I have been able to take a fresh look at the piece and have made the most changes since the Broadway production in 1998. As well as tightening and adding to the choreography, I have also toned down the humour, taken out a few “red-herrings” in the plot and beefed up the drama. Some audience members may not notice the small changes as much of the production remains true to the original. However, I do expect some letters from some of the more fervent fans, asking me for explanations as to why this or that moment has gone. It’s that kind of piece, and its fans are very loyal and protective.

The Matthew Bourne Swan Lake is still phenomenally popular. How have the audiences changed over the years?

When we first performed the piece in the UK and Internationally, we regularly had “walk-outs”, usually from men who couldn’t handle the male swan dancing with The Prince. It’s really a duet about the need to be loved, not particularly sexual, but nevertheless, it was more than some audience members could handle. Others complained that it wasn’t the “real’” Swan Lake and their daughter, who went to the local ballet school, was in tears because she was expecting tutu’s and pointe shoes. As the piece has become more well known, thanks largely to word of mouth, the TV screening and a little movie called Billy Elliott, these problems have pretty much disappeared. Gay and homo-erotic subject matter is more widely seen on our screens and indeed in the work of my company from The Car Man (2000) to the recent highly explicit gay relationships in Dorian Gray (2008) which happily toured to packed houses of over 140,000 around the UK. The only complaint being that “the music is too loud”!
The other wonderful thing that has happened is that my Swan Lake has for many years now been studied in schools as part of the GCSE and A level syllabus. This has introduced a whole new generation of young people to the work, who often tell me that they are “studying me”. Many of these young people now have trouble imagining the piece with female swans! Several dancers currently in my company first saw the piece as kids and were inspired to train as dancers. It’s this aspect of the production that is the least written about and the thing I am most proud of. The inspiration and message it gives to young people and the enormous new audience that it has introduced to dance and theatre.

What have been the biggest misconceptions about your production?

Well, the first and most frequently used misconception is that it is an “All-male” production. It has been said so often that some audiences think that the women in the show are actually men in drag! Of course the truth is that one third of the company are gorgeous and talented women and they don’t take kindly to this, as you can imagine! The other misconception, for those that have not seen it, is that the swans will be in some kind of ballet drag, with tutu’s and feathered head dresses, like the Trocks (the famous all-male drag ballet company) That idea is soon cleared up when our virile and sexy swans make their entrance in Act Two.
It’s sometimes called a ballet, which worries me, as there is not a pointe shoe in sight (apart from in the little spoof “ballet” in Act One) I would say it is more aptly described as contemporary dance/theatre.
The other description that is often used to describe it is “homo-erotic” which of course it is, but surely just “erotic” would be a better way to view it. Are my male swans only erotic to gay men? I think not!

Your production has three very coveted leading roles. What makes The Swan, The Prince and The Queen so rewarding to perform?

The Swan has become an iconic role - a charismatic, mysterious object of desire. It’s also a two sided character, as the same dancer also gets to play The Stranger in Act Three… this makes it very appealing and challenging as a dancer and as an actor. As in the female classical double act of playing the White Swan (Odette) and The Black Swan (Odile), it is a difficult role to cast, as dancers tend to be better at one side of the character or the other. Finding someone who can pull off both roles is always a challenge for us to find.
The Prince is another great role for a dancer/actor. It’s his story after all and he barely leaves the stage. By the time the Swan enters, The Prince has already been on stage for 30 minutes! It is very challenging emotionally and is often overshadowed by the glamour and power of The Swan, but he must break our hearts at the end.
The Queen has become a great role for a more mature dancer who can use her experience as a performer to be dramatic, moving, humorous, glamorous, cold, sensuous and sexy and tragic! It’s all there! No wonder we have had many requests, over the years, from semi-retired ballerina’s, from around the world, to perform this role.
The Girlfriend is also a wonderful character role for a dancing actress with comedic gifts.

This season there are several debuts in these leading roles. How do different casts affect the storytelling?

Many great performers have played these roles (Adam Cooper, Scott Ambler, Fiona Chadwick, Lynn Seymour, Will Kemp, Matthew Hart, Jason Piper, Alan Vincent, Saranne Curtin, Richard Winsor) and they all brought something new and individual. This is why it is always worth coming back to see different casts and partnerships. One of the ways we keep the show alive and fresh on our long tours is to constantly change the partners during the week, so very rarely do you get two performances with exactly the same line up of dancers. I like to give performers a lot of freedom in their interpretation of the choreography and performances, but sometimes this has been misunderstood or exaggerated to the point where it is unrecognizable! With this revival, I have been able to be much more “hands-on” and can assure you that the choreography and musicality should be spot-on and as intended. I am proud to say that this revival will feature some of my favourite and most experienced New Adventures stars alongside an exciting group of dancers making their debuts with us.

Swan Lake is probably your most famous production. Has it ever felt like a millstone around your neck?

Never! Swan Lake has been a great ambassador for the company throughout the World. I guess if it was the only successful piece in our repertory I would be more worried. It has actually paved the way for New Adventures to become a truly International company, with all our work now travelling around the globe. It continues to inspire and to bring new audiences to dance and for that we can all be proud. After 15 years it still holds a very special place in my heart.

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