Review – Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, 29th December 2018

Matthew Bourne's Swan LakeFor the record, this was the 7th time Mrs Chrisparkle and I have seen Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake since 1996 – and to be honest, I thought I’d seen it more. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is the finest full-length dance that’s been created in my lifetime, and I don’t know anyone who’s seen it, balletomanes or not, either live or on DVD/TV, who wasn’t impressed with it.

Dominic North as the PrinceIf you haven’t seen it – I can only recommend you try to get a ticket; however, not at Sadler’s Wells, as the entire run is sold out but elsewhere on its tour to Milton Keynes, Birmingham, Southampton, Glasgow and Bristol. You don’t have to have seen an original, classical version of the ballet beforehand, but if you have, there’s the additional fun of working out how Sir Matthew has adapted some of the original characters. But it’s still a superb, stand-alone story of how the young Prince, deprived of maternal affection, is trying to make sense of his life, duty and emotions; and how he finds a purpose with the Swan who may – or may not – be imaginary.

Will BozierI’d love to invite you to read my reviews of when we saw it in Milton Keynes in 2010 and Leicester in 2013 as well, because they show how this dance is constantly evolving. In those blogs I wrote about the changes I had seen from how I remembered it in its early days. Those changes were made sometimes for the better, sometimes not – and once again, in this 2018/2019 tour, there have been further changes, primarily thanks to Kerry Biggin’s re-staging. So much of the meaning of the dance is up to your own personal interpretation of what you see, and your emotional response to it, which also changes over the years.

Prince at SwankThe scene that seems to cry out for constant tinkering is the seedy backstreet disco towards the end of Act One. When we saw it five years ago, I enjoyed how they had created recognisable historical characters like Joe Orton and Quentin Crisp among the attendees – and that the older, tweedy lesbian disco bunny who has always been part of the action was very like June Buckridge from The Killing of Sister George. This time round, the disco scene is more anodyne. Out go the recognisable characters to be replaced by a less charismatic range of dancers; the girls are all in the same glitzy party dresses, the boys are all largely indistinguishable; and they’re all more or less the same age. I missed the sailors on shore leave, who kicked the Prince in the gutter outside the club on the way home. I missed the tweedy lesbian who hovered around the performing female artiste. I missed the schoolboy who sneaks into the disco illicitly, still wearing his school cap.

Swans a swanningSome time ago they changed the opening scene, where we meet the young Prince, getting washed and dressed, and being taken out with the Queen to learn the Art of Royalty. Originally it was a deliberate representation of a child in the role; nowadays it’s danced by the same performer who plays the grown-up Prince. The “child” dancer would also go on to play the schoolboy in the disco scene – which is why I presume he’s now missing. The main problem with that though, is the very final, searingly moving tableau of the show. The Swan always used to cradle the boy in his arms as they look down on the dead Prince on the bed (sorry if that’s a shock). Now he’s just seen with another unknown dancer – who he? – and that final tableau doesn’t particularly make sense anymore.

Queen launchingElsewhere, the First Act dog no longer comedically pulls the soldier who’s taking it for a walk off stage; in the opera house scene, the cast no longer serenely bow to an empty royal box – instead the soldier/courtier rushes in to pick up the girlfriend’s handbag and gets caught in the spotlights. However, there are also many instances where new changes create a superb effect. The lighting, for instance, in this current production, seems to provide extra stage depth in many of the scenes, and the looming shadows cast in the Prince’s bedroom take on a life of their own. The orchestra, under the baton of Brett Morris, played Tchaikovsky’s memorable score with tight excitement and supreme levels of emotion. No change there – I can’t remember a time when the music wasn’t superb.

StrangerBut it’s all about the dancing, isn’t it? Throughout the show it feels like the choreography has been ratcheted up a notch. It’s dangerous, it’s visceral, it’s strenuous. The Act One pas de deux between the Prince and the Queen is thrilling in the near-violence of the Prince’s physical beseeching for attention from his wayward mother. The Prince’s happiness and relief at the end of Act Two as he tears up his suicide note is the most boundless and joyous I’ve ever seen it. The fury of the jealous big-headed Act Three guest who insists that his partner behaves herself, is even more over the top and her dismissing him by chucking her cloak over his head is even more hilarious. The Act Three mocking of the Prince by the Swan and the other guests is even more savage. The general hissing and chattering of the swans, where once they were silent, creates further aggression and hostility; more than ever the swans in this production inhabit a macho environment of competitiveness and antagonism. All the way through the choreography continues to push the boundaries to encourage and enable even more technical brilliance from the dancers and a stronger emotional response from the audience.

Stranger in flightFor our show, we had two knock-out performances from Dominic North as the Prince and Will Bozier as the Swan. We saw Mr North in Matthew Bourne’s Lord of the Flies a few years ago and he still retains those incredibly expressive features that make all the difference when it comes to clear story-telling – in fact, this production of Swan Lake tells its story more clearly and eloquently than we’ve ever seen before. Mr North is an immaculate precision dancer who shines throughout the whole show, whether it be in his dance-based confrontations with the Queen, his rhapsodic joy at being saved by the Swan, or his being manipulated by the Stranger – he was perfect. Mr Bozier is a real find; tall and broad, he makes for a very masculine Swan and an extraordinarily insolent Stranger. Physically he towers over Mr North in their dances together – in a protective way as the Swan and overflowing with arrogance as the Stranger. I’ve not seen Mr Bozier before; he’s a dancer of superb skill and very exciting to watch. I can’t wait to see him in another role in the future.

QueenOur Queen was Nicole Kabera, and, like the rest of the cast, a perfect fit for the role. Superbly man-hungry, you sense this queen will have worked her way through the entire army by daybreak; no wonder she has no time for her pathetic specimen of a son. Ms Kabera has a fantastic stage presence and a very alluring manner; you can really feel that the Prince would be overwhelmingly intimidated by her. Katrina Lyndon’s Girlfriend is a complete hoot who really puts the common into commoner, with her total lack of etiquette but enormous sense of fun; in what I think is a change (or an addition) to the plot, this Girlfriend decides to return the money to the Private Secretary that he had originally paid her for trapping the Prince. And Glenn Graham was our smart and sinister Private Secretary; we saw him dance the Swan five years ago and he still packs a very strong stage presence.

Naughty swansWhat can I say? It’s a devastatingly wonderful production. Mrs C and I were up on our feet at the end with no hesitation. I can’t think of any production better suited to introduce an adult who knows nothing of the genre to the world of dance. However, it was also terrific to see so many children in the audience, both boys and girls, enthralled by it. Twenty-three years ago I knew this show would run and run. It’s showing no signs of stopping yet.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, Curve Theatre, Leicester, 9th November 2013

Swan LakeIt’s incredible to think it, but it is now 18 years since Matthew Bourne’s original production of his sensational revitalisation of Swan Lake first hit our stages. At the age of 18, it’s now come of age. It can vote, get married and go to war. By definition then, it can no longer be an enfant terrible, more a pillar of the community. But even if the audience knows full well what to expect, each performance is an assault on the senses. You still get those frissons of witnessing the avant-garde, being challenged by the sight of an all-male troupe of swans, observing the veiled (or not so veiled) hints of homoeroticism, gratefully appreciating the first act humour, powerlessly suffering the desperate tragedy of the final act.

The PrinceThis is one of those shows that we always see every time it comes around, and this was probably our ninth or tenth visit. We last saw it three years ago and appreciated then that there had been a few minor changes to keep it moving and contemporary. Today there are more changes; nothing drastic, just a few embellishments and emphasis changes, and some re-shaped choreography in Acts Three and Four. These make the swans more menacing as a group (although perhaps less menacing individually), and make the Prince even more tortured. This may well be due also to the amazing performance of Sam ArcherSam Archer as the Prince, who actually played the Prince when we saw it in 2010 but who I think has now really got into the role in a much greater depth. I found Act Four more moving than usual and I admit I had to brush away a tear when the Prince finally collapses dead on the bed (sorry if I’ve ruined the ending for you). One of the swans (Tom Cummings maybe – a little hard to tell without a full cast list) picked up the dying Prince and held him in his arms in mockery of the Act Two position that the Prince had adopted when he was being entranced by the Swan. It was a stunning visual image.

The SwanSome other subtle changes include having recognisable celebrities in the Act Two bar scene – it always did include the thick-set tweedy woman who visibly warmed to the charms of the younger girls – but I see she is now characterised as June Buckridge (from Frank Marcus’ Killing of Sister George). We now also have the appearances of Quentin Crisp and Joe Orton turning up too, so I think it’s fair to say that bar has become a little more metrosexual (at least) in its nature. The girlfriend character is now even more badly behaved during the gala ballet scene – in addition to all the little transgressions she used to do she now beats out the Glenn Grahamrhythm of the music like a tattoo on the front ledge of the box, to the disgust, naturally, of the Queen. The choreography for the Act Three waltz seems to have become even more lascivious, with a lot of appropriately raunchy hip-swivelling, which made it all the more entertaining as a result. However, Mrs Chrisparkle thought the end to the third act looked a little messier in comparison with previous performances. Perhaps clarity of storytelling got sacrificed for the whirlwind of activity that takes place in those final few very important seconds; she didn’t think that was quite up to scratch.

Michela MeazzaIt’s still a sensational show though. Sam Archer is superb as the Prince (even though for me Scott Ambler remains the best) and for the performance we saw, his Swan was danced by Glenn Graham. I think that’s a lucky role for a cover to perform. Our first Swan was Will Kemp, understudying Adam Cooper I believe, and he was mesmeric. The Swan/Stranger role is one where you can absolutely show off and stun your audience. Mr Graham was enthrallingly brilliant. As the Swan he was so intense; his incredible ability to hold a fixed gaze really heightened the tension between him and the Prince. His dancing was immaculate too. The BarAs the Act Three Stranger, that same steely glare helps him dominate proceedings and I absolutely loved the way he led the Allegro Molto Vivace coda (that Tchaikovsky originally put in Act One) – full of brilliant attack with all the boys stage right lunging their way into the coquettish girls’ stage left area and back again; superbly entertaining.

In the performance we saw, the Queen was danced by Michela Meazza and she was superb. Sometimes the Queen can be a little static – so aloof and over-starchy that she barely moves. This Queen danced magnificently, whilst still bringing all the cruelty and horror of the unloving parent to the role and nicely enhancing the humour of her selecting escorts from the talent on offer. To be honest, if I may be so bold, and if you would kindly forgive my directness, gentle reader, she’s the original QUILFAnjali Mehra. Anjali Mehra played the Girlfriend with huge enthusiasm and a great sense of fun; you got a sense that this girlfriend truly regretted her involvement in any underworld plot to discredit the Prince. From the ensemble, I really enjoyed the partnership of Chantelle Gotobed and Luke Jackson as the Italian Princess and escort – he the know-it-all but ineffectual celebrity, she the girlfriend from Hell, encouraging the Stranger to be as naughty with her as you could decently show on a Saturday matinee. But everyone put their heart and soul into the show and it was a fantastic performance.

Act FourIt was a sell-out, so if you want to see it on its current tour, don’t hang about booking tickets, get them bought now! It’s touring through till May 2014 including trips to Belgium and Israel. Go on, you won’t regret it.

PS. The audience were disappointingly chatty; because the music is recorded, I wondered if that signalled to people that it’s perfectly ok to talk over it in a way that you wouldn’t if it was live. In case you were wondering, it isn’t.

PPS. I bumped into Messrs Harry Francis and Simon Hardwick, late of A Chorus Line, who are in Leicester rehearsing the Christmas show, Chicago. It was very nice finally to be able to say a quick hello to them. Mr Francis said he thought Chicago was going to be great (you heard it here first) – had I booked? I hadn’t then, but I have now!

Review – Swan Lake, Peter Schaufuss Ballet, Derngate, Northampton, 13th September 2013

Swan LakeWe returned to the Royal and Derngate for the second offering this week by the Peter Schaufuss Ballet Company, Swan Lake. Given that Romeo and Juliet delivered much more than it promised, expectations were a little higher. Sadly, that was but the first of many misjudgements that evening.

Simona MarsibilioThe pre-show synopsis proved interesting reading. The ballet is framed by the appearance of “The Dream Master” who basically has a nasty dream about the Prince and the Queen, her requiring him to choose a bride, he only liking “The Swan Girl” (no Odette/Odile here) and not fancying any of the exotic princesses who dance for him at the ball. Rothbart tricks him by presenting his daughter the Black Swan (different dancer from the Swan Girl), whom he chooses as his bride, then the truth is revealed, he goes frantic, can’t make it up with the Swan Girl then finally he turns back into the Dream Master and “the nightmare is over”. Now, I am all for experimentation in theatre and dance, and my usual watchword is that I would prefer to see a brave experimental failure rather than a lazy, easy success. Following the tedium of this dance experience, I may have to revise that watchword.

The chief problem is the choreography. For the most part it’s unimaginative and very repetitious. How you long for a touch of the 1895 Ivanov; but Mr Schaufuss’ choreography (I presume it is his, it’s not actually credited anywhere), especially for the swans, seems limited to some stomping around and throwing hands in the air every so often. Either that or the dancers were expressing their own personal dismay at being in this show. The usual highlight of the Dance of the Cygnets was simply unnoticeable as there was hardly any variation from what went before or followed afterwards. The Prince and the Swan Girl’s dances involved a lot of writhing around on the floor so that most people couldn’t see what was going on. Some manic rabbits appeared every so often – I think they were meant to represent jesters – who injected a little element of humour, but even they tended to outstay their welcome.

Ryoko YagyuTo be fair, the choreography improved a little after the interval, with the four princesses’ dances having some flair and wit to them, and the Prince’s final solo being a highly watchable tour de force. There is also a moment where I couldn’t tell whether to laugh or be shocked, when it appears the Black Swan is about to fellate the prince. The brief appearance of Rothbart created a sudden interesting dynamic – the stage brightened up when he came on. Sadly, that was short-lived and it returned to its former dullness when he left.

The recorded music – particularly before the interval – is underwhelming and really quiet. Mrs Chrisparkle thought it sounded like we were listening to music in an adjacent theatre. Bizarrely, it’s also not all from Swan Lake; there are definitely other pieces of music in there that I didn’t recognise. The stage is bare (not that I mind that) but the stitched patches in the backdrop material made it look incredibly cheap and worn. The costumes are all black, white or grey, or a combination of the same, with little style or sense of elegance.

Yoko TakahashiIt’s a crying shame that such talented dancers were being given such dull things to do. Thaddaeus Low is, I am sure, an exciting young dancer and his final solo was indeed superb. Luke Schaufuss (Romeo earlier in the week) is a member of the corps de ballet in this production, and shines with his excellent rapid changements. Ryoko Yagyu and Yoko Takahashi both perform with superb skill and control. The company is packed with extraordinary dancers. But it doesn’t matter how good they are; the artistic vision behind this production is so absent that it commits the cardinal sin of being boring from a very early stage; and basically you can’t wait for it to end. We were overheard talking about the show during the interval by a couple who described themselves as “ballet virgins” and wondered if ballet in the provinces was always this boring. They hated the set, the costumes, the music, the entire experience. We begged them to give the genre another chance in the future, but had to agree, this production is woeful.

Review – Moscow City Ballet, Swan Lake, Derngate, Northampton, 19th February 2012

Moscow City BalletWe all know the tradition of Russian ballet – you don’t have to be a fan to have heard of the Bolshoi, the Mariinsky, Nijinsky, Nureyev and so on. About eleven years ago, Mrs Chrisparkle and I found ourselves in St. Petersburg, as you do, and spent an evening watching a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake at the – if I remember correctly – Mikhailovsky Theatre. It was to be our first attendance at a genuine Russian Classical ballet performance. Boy, was it poor. The dancers were bored, danced boringly, the orchestra played boringly, and the whole evening was primarily set up so that Japanese tourists could take a constant stream of flash photography throughout. If it hadn’t been for the Russian champagne at the interval, we might well have thrown ourselves into the orchestra pit without a parachute.

So it was with some trepidation but still some hopefulness that we booked to see the Moscow City Ballet’s production of Swan Lake. For extra ballast, we took our nieces, Special Agent N (laid back and taking it all in her stride) and Special Agent S (slightly younger, still agog with excitement.) I’m delighted to say this is a whole different ball game; top notch dancing with commitment and elegance, fantastic attention to detail, stirringly skilful and, above all, simply beautiful to watch.

We’ve only once before seen a “traditional” performance of Swan Lake, and that was by Birmingham Royal Ballet some years ago, which I chiefly remember for the powerfully atmospheric way in which the swans appeared from a misty nowhere in Act Two. Apart from that, it’s just the Trocks’ famous Act One version (which is brilliant) and Matthew Bourne’s male swan version (also brilliant.) I think this is probably then the most faithful we have seen to the Petipa/Ivanov 1895 staging. And it’s no surprise that their choreography remains so popular – it’s just so enjoyable to watch.

Production values are appropriately high – the set, though simple, is attractive and evocative – especially the big stained window for Act Three. The costumes are superb – sufficiently lavish to look spectacular, but not so that they draw you away from the dancers themselves. Similarly the orchestra is nicely in control of its music – you’d find it a bit of a flat performance if it was a concert, but as a framework for the dance it was perfect.

Alevtina LapshinaAt the performance we saw, Odette-Odile was played by Alevtina Lapshina. She was magnificent. A mysteriously beautiful Odette, outstanding whether fronting the corps, in pas de deux with the Prince or as a soloist. She is remarkably graceful and faultless in her fluidity. Even some rather irritating off-stage door-banging could not affect the beauty of her scene with the Prince, shortly before the dance of the little swans. As Odile, she adopts a half-coquette, half-harlot smile and there is no way any of the other brides were going to get a look-in with the Prince. Special Agent S was particularly amazed at her wonderful turning fouettés during the grand pas de six. It’s a stunning performance – and we loved the white and black costume she briefly wore, excellent detail from the costume department there.

Kanat NadyrbekThe Prince was Kanat Nadyrbek. He too gave a very good performance, strong and graceful in support of Odette and suitably beguiled by Odile. His dance was superbly controlled and perfectly placed throughout. For me the role gets overshadowed if you have a really great Odette though. But Mr Nadyrbek was excellent nevertheless.

Daniil OrlovPossibly more entertaining to watch, however, was Daniil Orlov’s Von Rothbart, whose appearances were a constant joy. He seems to cover huge areas of stage with the lightest of leaps, and created a genuinely menacing figure. I hadn’t noticed before – maybe it is new? – his brief, simple appearance at the back of the stage in Act three where he dances across the stage in a mirror image of the Prince, blinded by Odile’s attractions, doing the same movements front stage, suggesting von Rothbart is mocking and controlling him. Very effective. I really enjoyed his performance.

Swan LakeThe whole company are on top form, but I would also like to mention a couple of other performers; you either love the role or you hate it, but I thought Valeriy Kravtsov’s Jester was fantastic – dancing superbly, eyes and face full of expression, astonishing with his acrobatic split leaps, commenting wryly on the court activities through the medium of movement alone. Wonderful; he’s listed as a member of the corps de ballet in the programme, surely he must be promoted to soloist soon.

I also thought that, as one of the Polish brides, Anna Nunes really got into the spirit of the dance and was grace and elegance personified; another stunning performance.

Act ThreePerhaps occasionally a couple of the male corps de ballet seemed slightly under-rehearsed in Act Three, and once or twice Mrs C felt the dancers in the Act One pas de trois were a little out of place; but, in all honesty, who cares, it was gorgeous throughout. Having seen those grumpy ballerinas in St Petersburg it was a true delight to see this company wearing their “happy to be dancing” smiles – when it was appropriate to do so. The acting and characterisation were as good as you could possibly have hoped them to be.

Special Agent S thought it was unfair that the male corps de ballet didn’t get a curtain call at the end. Just goes to show that life can sometimes be sexist, kid. We all loved it though – and it’s a real treat to welcome a dance company of this quality from Russia. If you’re a fan of classical ballet you will really enjoy this. Touring till the end of March, don’t miss it.

Review – Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, Milton Keynes Theatre

Look, I promise you – Swan Lake when I go to see something I don’t enjoy, I really will tell you. There’s nothing duller than someone going on about how great something is. It makes you think they haven’t honed their critical faculties. Honestly, though, mine are pretty honed. I do, however, do my best to see performances that I think I will like. Not much point going to stuff you know you won’t like. I’m not a professional critic after all.

So we come to Thursday night’s performance of Swan Lake by New Adventures, out of Adventures in Motion Pictures. Matthew Bourne’s modern take on an old masterpiece, thereby creating a fresh new masterpiece for the last and this century.

Fridge MagnetLet me take you back, if I may, 15 years to the Wycombe Swan Theatre and the first time we saw this production. Look, here’s a picture of our old Fridge Magnet! A Saturday matinee, with the chief roles of The Prince and The Swan danced by Scott Ambler and Will Kemp respectively. They remain my favourite performers in the roles; their dancing was fantastic (take that as read) but Will Kemp as the Stranger in the Second Act was precision to perfection. Scott Ambler’s expressions of all the emotions Bourne puts the Prince through are memorable to this day.

In the intervening years I estimate we’ve seen the show another 8 or so times. Basically, whenever it’s on – we go to see it. So going back to see it now is like seeing a lovable old friend, checking that it’s still in rude health and still as full of gusto as ever. Delighted to report that it is.

Sam Archer Here we now have the 2010 Fifteenth Anniversary Tour, with Sam Archer as the Prince and Richard Winsor as the Swan. The dancing remains fantastic; although for me Sam Archer’s expressions are not quite heartfelt enough to be completely convincing. It’s a small cavil. On the other hand, Richard Winsor’s Swan very nearly beat Will Kemp in the favourite stakes in that I (we both in fact) really felt completely sorry for the Swan at the end, whereas normally you feel more sorry for the Prince. Richard Winsor Sorry is not strong enough actually – you feel devastated for the Swan. We measure how much we enjoy the performance of the Swan/Stranger by the precision with which he ends up on the Down Stage Right table in the ballroom scene (if you’ve seen the show, you’ll know which bit we mean). Will Kemp still keeps the honour of being tops in that department.

But it remains an absolutely wonderful production. Funny, sad, inventive, insightful. So many memorable moments – the Royal Box scene where the uncouth girlfriend shows herself up is as funny as I’ve ever seen it. The programme notes reveal that Matthew Bourne has changed a few small bits, notably trying to tone down the humour at certain points. Well not in this scene he hasn’t.

Scott AmblerThe disco at the seedy bar is possibly slightly less funny but the machinations of what’s going on appear a bit clearer now. And in the ballroom scene, the guys who have had their girlfriends semi-seduced by the Stranger now appear to get together to dance a “Who the bloody hell does he think he is” type of dance, which I hadn’t noticed before. The Queen does an excellent “Don’t Touch Me – unless you’re one of those nice boys I fancy” routine and dances tremendously athletically. Wonderful too to see Scott Ambler now cast as the Private Secretary, deviously manipulating half the characters, taking sadistic pleasure in ruining the Prince, dancing with effortless ease.

The swans are as stunning as ever; I know that to some eyes the all-male swans meant homoeroticism, and I’m not denying it’s there, but for me having the swans as male mainly increases their menace, their power and strength, their capacity for harm. The way they emerge nightmare-like in the final scene still sends a shiver of fear down your spine. When the group of swans turn on and attack “our” swan at the end you feel it is because he has transgressed some code of species, and “gone off” with a human. It’s an inventive and effective way of showing the viciousness of prejudice.

You’ll gather I still like the show. So did the capacity crowd (if it was a football match) at the Milton Keynes theatre. This is one of those productions that it should be compulsory to see. It will change your life to some extent.