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The Independent Culture
SWAN LAKE holds a special place among classical ballets. It is the one that almost everyone can put a name to, hum a tune to, even if they've never seen it staged. Popular images of classical ballet are - unconsciously - often culled from its scenes, in particular a generalised vision of identical girls in white tutus drifting across the stage on point. But exactly 100 years after its first performance in St Petersburg, the unruffled surface of Swan Lake is about to experience a spot of turbulence. In a new version which opens at Sadler's Wells this week, the corps de ballet not only has no tutus, but no girls. These are full-grown males - a flock of swans who could break your arm with one powerful swipe.

Dropping men into such potently feminine roles has often been a source of comedy (a French company once did a Swan Lake in drag; the Two Ronnies found endless mileage in wilting cygnets), but this production is far from being a spoof. Uniquely, it promises a careful reworking of Swan Lake's themes, closely wedded to Tchaikovsky's score. Its choreographer, Matthew Bourne, has often been called "irreverent", but only because he has dared to reinterpret hallowed classics as contemporary dance. The name of his company, Adventures in Motion Pictures (AMP), says it all.

For this project, as if to prove his serious intent, Bourne has "borrowed" a principal dancer from the Royal Ballet, 25-year-old Adam Cooper (shown on the far right of the main picture, and above and below), to play the White Swan. The Royal, which by coincidence has just opened its autumn season with its 801st performance of Swan Lake, released Cooper from his commitments with remarkably good grace, given that Bourne's work is in many ways the antithesis of what goes on at the Royal Opera House. Cooper, for his part, describes the experience as "a dream... to have a full-length ballet choreographed on me is the chance of a lifetime."

Bourne's recent transformations of classical dance-works have been impressive. A couple of years ago, he reworked the early Romantic ballet La Sylphide into Highland Fling, set in a Glasgow tenement, and in 1992 his revolutionary Nutcracker (a Sweetieland peopled with Doris Day marshmallows and fruit gums on motorbikes) became the popular hit of two seasons at Sadler's Wells.

The success of Nutcracker gave Bourne the confidence to tackle another grand project. "I had always loved Swan Lake," he says. "The first single image that came to me was that of the strong male swan. I knew I wanted that, but it was a while before I turned my mind to the implications for the plot." Given that the central theme of the Petipa/Ivanov original is the romantic love of Prince Siegfried for a woman-cum-swan, the implications were considerable.

At a stroke, Bourne decided to do away with the magic element - the curse that kept humans in the shape of swans by day - and substituted a rational plot in which the young Prince Siegfried, unhappy in his restricted life at court, longs for the freedom he sees embodied in a flock of swans. "I saw it a bit like the play Equus," says Bourne, "and the boy who is obsessed by horses. Here Siegfried is attracted to the swans, and frightened by them, and controlled by them. There is certainly an erotic element in the idea - the swan in any context has erotic connotations - but we underplay that."

Bourne is bracing himself for misunderstandings. "Some people will already have decided that having a male swan and a male Prince means the ballet is homosexual. We didn't set out to tell the story that way," he says wearily, "but audiences always find what they want to find."

Given Swan Lake's reputation for old-fashioned loveliness, will it be possible for a flock of men with feathery thighs to deliver the same frisson? "It'll be different," says Bourne. "The swan scenes will be powerful, sensual. But I always meant it to be beautiful to watch - I think it will be that, too."

! AMP's 'Swan Lake' plays at Sadler's Wells from 9 to 25 November and begins a national tour in February