For all their surface serenity, swans are dangerous beasts. Being confronted by their fierce wingbeats can be an intimidating experience. So why not apply these characteristics to Swan Lake? That’s just what Matthew Bourne did at Sadler’s Wells in 1995, cleaving apart the traditional image of ballerina swans in feathery tutus, turning them into a savage, predatory all-male corps. Despite ruffling traditionalist feathers, it became a huge success, playing to audiences worldwide. Now, Bourne’s male swans take flight again, led spectacularly by Royal Ballet principal, Matthew Ball.

Matthew Ball and swan corps © Johan Persson
Matthew Ball and swan corps
© Johan Persson

Not only did Bourne’s production opens door to new audiences, it also gave licence to young boys to want to dance. The inspirational film Billy Elliot even ends with Adam Cooper – the original Swan – playing the adult Billy performing the lead role. Now 23 years old, it’s become a modern classic. Bourne has wryly noted that many in this latest crop of dancers were not even born when this production premiered.

“I’m a serial meddler in my own work,” Bourne confessed in a recent BBC Radio 3 interview. His choreography has been revised over the years – it’s now a fully grown prince having nightmares about a swan rather than a boy, for instance – and designer Lez Brotherston’s stylish sets have been refreshed, the frosted branches protruding out of the pristine pillars by the lakeside especially stunning, all evocatively lit by Paule Constable.

Nicole Kabera (Queen) © Johan Persson
Nicole Kabera (Queen)
© Johan Persson

Tragedy grows out of initial comedy. Liam Mower’s repressed Prince suffers a dull routine of premieres and paparazzi, accompanying his mother on state occasions. A snapping corgi references the British monarchy. Katrina Lyndon’s ditzy blonde “girlfriend” in puffball dress – an opportunist – accompanies the royal party to the ballet, where Bourne hilariously parodies the classics, a moth fairy and gawky woodcutter ambushed by three trolls. 

But our Prince is in mental turmoil, isolated but unloved, treated coldly by Nicole Kabera’s vampish Queen, who dazzles in Dior-style couture. In front of a giant mirror, the prince takes to the bottle to drown his sorrows – an example of Bourne cleverly reordering the score, using the same Act 3 pas de six number that Liam Scarlett recently interpolated into the finale act in his recent version at the Royal Ballet. Humiliation in a sleazy nightclub leads him lakeside, where he writes a suicide note, but is saved from leaping to his death by the appearance of Matthew Ball’s charismatic Swan leading a corps of fourteen.

Matthew Ball (Swan) and Liam Mower (Prince) © Johan Persson
Matthew Ball (Swan) and Liam Mower (Prince)
© Johan Persson

These swans sport buzz-cuts and black facial markings, bare torsos and feathered breeches. For all their hisses and aggressive kicks and lunges, it is their arms, carving great arcs, which drive the choreography with thrilling physicality. Ball’s Swan has power and sinew, but his wonderfully elegant phrasing is erotically charged. As The Stranger at the ball scene – mysterious von Rothbart–Odile figure – he struts and swaggers narcissistically, flirting with every woman… including the Queen. The character dances are great here, thrusting ensemble numbers from a smoky Danse russe to jealous Neapolitans before the partner-swapping of the “Black Swan” during which the Stranger reappears sporting some of the Swan’s black facial markings, driving the Prince insane as he continues to pursue the Queen. I had felt the presence of the Girlfriend in this act unnecessarily comedic, but didn’t anticipate the shocking denouement which sets up the finale. The Prince is locked in an asylum, where the Swan emerges through his bed… now if that’s not a psychological problem, I don’t know what is. The corps of swans turns feral, pecking the prince ferociously, then mob mentality turns them on their leader when he tries to intervene, plucking out his feathers. Its power is jaw-dropping.

Matthew Ball (Swan) and Liam Mower (Prince) © Johan Persson
Matthew Ball (Swan) and Liam Mower (Prince)
© Johan Persson

The evening benefits from having a live orchestra, conducted by Benjamin Pope. Reduced strings (lovely portamentos in the Csardas) lead to a lack of sumptuousness in Tchaikovsky’s score and the solo violin is amplified a little too much, but this is a small price to pay rather than relying on a recorded soundtrack. The Act 2 prelude felt too rushed, but taking the lakeside pas de deux equally swiftly gave the music an inevitable impetus.

Bourne’s supremacy as a storyteller is unparalleled – no programme synopsis is ever required. He subverts the traditional version of the ballet, but his retelling is highly respectful of the music. Here, he tells the tale of a lonely man who simply wants to be held, who wants to be loved. Although the warning that swans are powerful enough to break a grown man’s arm has been dismissed as myth, perhaps Bourne proves they can break a man’s heart instead.

*****