Dance review: Stunning, virile take on classic ballet Swan Lake

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake. -- PHOTO: ESPLANADE - THEATRES ON THE BAY 
Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake. -- PHOTO: ESPLANADE - THEATRES ON THE BAY 

Swan Lake, a cornerstone of the classical ballet repertoire, has spawned countless interpretations since its poorly received debut in 1877. Matthew Bourne's retelling of the romantic story is one that is mischievous, deviant and widely considered a modern classic. Entertaining at every turn, it is easy to see the production has been met with rapturous applause all over the world for twenty years.

Brimming with references from film, musical theatre and popular culture, this Swan Lake strips away the traditional delicacy of the ballet and in its place, evokes a stunning virility that matches the escalating urgency in Tchaikovsky's enduring score. Bourne paints humour in broad strokes, yet is attentive to detail. Every character on stage is clearly defined - the shy soldier, the eager autograph-hunter - even when the ensemble is dancing in unison. The cast beautifully inhabits Bourne's sunny Broadway-inflected neoclassical style, alongside the occasional strut, pop and thrust.

In the role of the repressed Prince, Simon Williams accompanies his icy Cruella de Vil-esque mother on a mind-numbing series of royal duties, helplessly keeping pace in the cruelly clinical world of the monarchy. Here, Bourne throws in a wink at the celebrity status of the British royal family, complete with corgis and paparazzi. The unannounced arrival of Anjali Mehra's bubblegum-pink, unabashed Girlfriend lends the stuffy court some sunshine, and what she lacks in etiquette, she makes up for in good exaggerated cheer.

There is a ballet within the ballet - a brilliantly pointed pastiche of romantic ballets with its ornate costumes and pastoral setting. Bourne shows clear knowledge of his source material, and his Swan Lake, like his other classical ballet remakes, are richly referential and crafted as a loving homage.

The titular swans' entrance conjures a menacing maelstrom which saves the dejected Prince from his suicide attempt. As he witnesses the expansive freedom in the swans' wingspans, he comes to recognise the liberation he craves. As the Swan, Chris Trenfield demonstrates power and grace in equal measure with lofty jumps and muscular, rippling arms. The ensemble embodies the swans as a hissing, masculine flock, vaulting across the stage in their trademark chiffon fringed pants.

Mimicking the Swan's movements, the Prince finally dances with abandon, injecting fluidity in his once rigid movement. Bourne's choreography is impeccably musical, highlighting the intricate details in Tchaikovsky's score with a subtle ruffling of feathers or a flick of a wrist. Pressed palms for swans' beaks turn into guns in a chilling advance, and the delightful dance of the cygnets pulses with a delightful charm. The chemistry between the Prince and the Swan does not sizzle, but chillingly foreshadows tragedy.

In the third act, Trenfield swaggers into the palace as a lethal James Bond figure, his ferocity channeled into seducing everyone he sees. He is a commanding presence, dancing with various princesses before engaging in a bump-and-grind flirtation with the Queen, much to the Prince's confusion and fury. While comedy is rife, the episodes, seemingly filling out Tchaikovsky's music for national dances, permeate the scene with extravagant camp. This unfortunately distracts from the heartbreaking disintegration of the Prince, who is unable to align his ideals with his reality.

Lez Brotherston's sets are effectively kitsch, and full of surprises. Swans emerge from under and behind the Prince's bed as he writhes in his nightmare. Here, the swans turn rogue, bounding through the air with an aggressive ferocity as their leader shows his affection for the Prince. Vicious pecking ensues, and the doomed pair are eventually united in death's embrace in a moving apotheosis.

stlife@sph.com.sg

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SWAN LAKE

Where: Esplanade Theatre

When: Friday, 8pm; Saturday, 2pm and 8pm; Sunday, 2pm

Tickets: $20-$120 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

Info: This production contains mature themes and brief nudity

Info: www.dansfestival.com/2014