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The director-choreographer Matthew Bourne first premiered his revelatory Swan Lake in 1995, since which time this reinvention of a ballet classic has transfixed audiences in the West End and across the globe.
Boldly shattering the traditional concept of swans in tutus, Bourne created a passionate and contemporary Swan Lake for our times, which soon established itself as one of theatre’s great events.
The show is coming to Canterbury’s Marlowe Theatre for the first time, but unless you already have your ticket then sadly you’ve missed the boat as it sold out weeks ago.
Enjoy this insight from Matthew Bourne himself, however, as he spoke with Matt Wolf about his memories of Swan Lake’s 1995 premiere at London’s Sadler’s Wells.
Did you have any idea that your Swan Lake would go on to achieve such longevity?
“Absolutely not. You couldn’t predict anything like that. It was a long piece – the longest by far that I had done up to that point – so it was about trying to do the best that we could do.
There were all sorts of doubts expressed by people outside of the room, and I was well aware that there were two prevailing camps. One group was sure that the piece was going to be hilarious and a real send-up; they were the ones who couldn’t wait!
There were others who kept saying, ‘You do know it’s a tragedy and you’re not going to mess around with it, are you?’ We thought it could work but we were over-confident.”
Can you recall the moment when the idea itself took hold?
“The very first thought was of all-male swans. That had come to me watching the ballet long before I ever had a company or any possibility of doing Swan Lake at all – it was just a daydream.
I remember being intrigued as to what that might do to the plot. I had this memory of Royal Ballet dancer Anthony Dowell as the prince, wandering around in act one pretty much saying, ‘No, I will not get married; I want something else!’ It was that feeling of yearning, which seemed to me a metaphor for someone who is possibly gay or who maybe just wanted a different kind of woman.
It definitely felt to me like something that was there in the ballet itself and not like anything I had invented. And if you considered Tchaikovsky’s own life and the turmoil and violence in the music, that also suggested something much deeper than a lot of pretty swans.”
Was there a moment in the performance when you sensed a hit on your hands?
“Very much. The bit I think that made the audience go completely quiet was the entrance of Adam Cooper as the swan. All of a sudden, you felt people thinking, “This isn’t what we were expecting!”
But actually it was once the second half got going and we were at the ball scene that it suddenly become electric and then when Adam came on in leather trousers as the black swan it really caught fire. At the end there was this spontaneous roar that the piece has got ever since, that was something I had not expected at all.”
You went on from Swan Lake to devise numerous pieces – Edward Scissorhands, Play Without Words, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty – but does this one occupy a privileged position?
“I like to think of all those pieces as children, and you can’t pick a favourite. But of course I’m hugely grateful to Swan Lake and how could I not be?
It changed my life and a lot of people’s lives, and it took us to Broadway and made us an international company. The fact is, I still love thinking about it and still have a lot to say about it to the dancers.
It is amazing to think that, in 18 years, we’ve gone from a company of eight to, at the moment, 70, and that we’ve done more performances of our Swan Lake during those years than the Royal Ballet has done during its entire existence.”
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