Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake comes to Edinburgh

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake. Pic: Comp
Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake. Pic: Comp
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MATTHEW Bourne chose his company name wisely - New Adventures. As anyone who has been lucky enough to see one of his works will know, when Bourne is wearing his choreographer’s hat, you are sure of something innovative, exciting and dramatic. A new adventure indeed.

Next week at the Festival Theatre, there’s a chance to catch one of his most famous works, the multi award-winning Swan Lake.

 The piece, which premiered at Sadler’s Wells in 1995, is a modern re-interpretation that turns tradition upside down by blending dance, humour and spectacle.

Bourne admits that, as he rehearsed that first production, he had no idea it would go on to achieve such longevity.

“You couldn’t predict anything like that. I just remember in the rehearsal room having to get the thing done. It was a long piece - the longest by far that I had done up to that point - so it was about working away at just trying to do the best that we could do. I wasn’t really thinking beyond that.”

Featuring a corps of all-male swans, Bourne admits that in those early days, there was no guarantee his idea to reinvent the classic tale of Odette, a princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer’s curse, would work. “There were all sorts of doubts expressed by people outside of the rehearsal 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?’,” he recalls.

“I remember all of us feeling that we liked the idea and that we had something that we thought could work but I don’t think we were over-confident.

“It was more about a sense of us working towards the same thing and a confidence simply in the fact that we liked the idea of what we were doing.”

Bourne, whose other works now include Nutcracker!, Cinderella, The Car Man, Play Without Words, Edward Scissorhands, Dorian Gray and Sleeping Beauty, reveals that it was the concept of having all-male swans that provided the creative spark for his production.

“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,” he explains.

“I remember being intrigued as to what that might do to the plot.

“It helped, of course, that I had seen the ballet itself a lot, so 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: take her away; I want something else.’ So I just thought, ‘Oh, there’s something going on in this story that is not being told.’

“I think it was that feeling of someone who is yearning for something, which seemed to me a metaphor for someone who is possibly gay or who maybe just wanted a different kind of woman or something like that.

“It definitely felt to me like something that was there in the ballet itself and not like anything I had invented.” 

 Bourne, whose choreography has also featured in hit musicals such as Oliver!, My Fair Lady and Mary Poppins, all of which have been seen in the Capital, is quick to point out, however, that while the swans are all male, his Swan Lake is not an all-male production.

“We’ve had some wonderful women over time, from Fiona Chadwick and Etta Murfitt onwards.

“The thing is, that misperception is so easy to say and it makes sense to everyone but I do have to correct it, obviously. For one thing I don’t want people sitting there thinking in the scenes with the royals that they are watching men in drag.”

Recalling the precise moment he knew the production was a success Bourne says, “The bit 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’ – it suddenly went very quiet, very serious.

“And then I remember Cameron Mackintosh, the producer, coming up in the interval and saying that he had to do this in the West End, and I thought, this is only the interval but, well, Cameron does know; there is something about his instinct.

“But actually, it was once the second half got going and we were into the ball scene that it all become suddenly electric and then when Adam came on in his 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, and that was honestly something I had not expected at all.

“I’m hugely grateful to Swan Lake and how could I not be? It changed my life and a lot of people’s lives in a way and it took us to Broadway and made us an international company.

“The fact is, I still love thinking about it and working on and still have a lot to say about it to the dancers.

“And it is amazing to think that in 18 years we’ve gone from a company of eight to one at the moment of 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.”

Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, Festival Theatre, Nicolson Street, Tuesday-Saturday, 7.30pm (matinees 2.30pm) £17-£43.50, 0131-529 6000