When is Swan Lake not Swan Lake? When it’s Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake of course. Famed for replacing the traditionally female lead ballerina with a male dancer and for its all male corps de ballet, Black Swan it ain’t. Irish audiences may think they know what the score is – and they do in a way, the music is still Tchaikovsky – but Matthew Bourne’s interpretation of what is arguably the world’s best known ballet is a totally different kettle of fish.
Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake debuted in 1995 to unsuspecting ballet fans. It's well known that people used to walk out in outrage in the early days of the show; it seemed folks of the '90s weren't as progressive as they thought they were (no matter how much Beverly Hills 90210 they watched.) Those closed minded philistines were clearly in the minority though - Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake is the longest running ballet on London’s West End and Broadway and when when it comes to Dublin's Bord Gáis Energy Theatre next week it will be here as part of its fifth tour.
Chris Trenfield, lead dancer, told me he reckons the show's lasting appeal and sell-out performances comes from the fact that this version of Swan Lake is less ballet, more musical theatre.
‘If you’re not used to going to see a ballet, if you are more used to going to see musical theatre and shows like that then this would be a great sort of transition towards ballet or if you are a fan of ballet and you wanted to see something different or a different take on things then I think it definitely reaches a much wider audience.’
This is good news for Irish audiences since it's no secret that we're mad for a bit of razzle dazzle.
Despite the initial controversy, Chris says that he hasn't experienced any negativity from anyone for taking on the role. He points out that the show he’s part of in is not a 'gay love story' per se.
‘Because views in society have changed so much since it’s been running, I think it’s a lot more accepted now and people see the message that it’s portraying. I don’t think the gay element is such an issue any more and I think it’s a lot more widely accepted in society now.
We don’t play it such as a loving relationship between the prince and the swan, it’s more of the idea – the freedom of the swan and the strength and the power of the swan that the prince desires. I think that’s a different way to look at it as well.’
The Swan's male incarnation has become iconic in its own right. Who can ever forget an older Billy Elliot at the end of the film flexing his impressive muscles, getting ready to leap that incredible leap across the stage in all his powerful, masculine, swan-like glory?
Apart from the promise of a rollicking good show, the male Swan and the all male corps de ballet is the major reason why people flock to the show. While the traditional ballerina Swan is kitted out in a lovely tutu, the male swans wear feathers on their bottom halves and not a lot else. The corps de ballet are not delicate, they are fierce, powerful and masculine. This is the main reason why Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is so different from all the other incarnations. Chris Trenfield told me that when Matthew Bourne was researching the choreography, he looked at swans and it dawned on him that they are actually quite muscular and aggressive.
‘A pretty girl in a tutu doesn’t have that sort of dynamic to them. I think when you see the men with their shirts off, with their feathered pants on, [they] actually become a lot more animalistic and a lot more unpredictable in the movement. There is a lot of lovely movement which is very flowing and artistic but then it can suddenly change and you’ve got this strength which is really quite interesting to watch.’
Interesting certainly, sexy definitely. But in a classy way of course, this is ballet.
People get notions when they get when they hear the words Swan and Lake together. But put Matthew Bourne before those words and opinions change. It hasn't been running for nearly 20 years for nothing.