Innovation vs tradition in Battle of Swan Lake

With a quarter of the population watching or taking part in dance, supporters are confident it is now on solid ground. Its popularity is allowing two versions of a classic ballet to flourish, reports Louise Jury
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It is one of the most romantic works in history, a magical story of a handsome prince and his fateful encounter with a beautiful young swan. But for fans of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, the choice this Christmas is new romantic or old.

At Sadler's Wells in London, the revival of Matthew Bourne's groundbreaking production, which had muscular male swans in place of slender female ranks is close to sold out. And across town, the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden last night unveiled its latest revival of Sir Anthony Dowell's more classical production, first seen in 1987.

With ticket sales estimated to top £2m across an astonishing seven-week run, Bourne is set to win at the box-office against the Royal Ballet which is offering a comparatively modest 12 performances of Swan Lake in repertory with another classic full-length ballet, Cinderella.

Although both these are selling well, the Royal Opera House is about to launch a major bill-board advertising campaign across London promoting the Royal Ballet as "Somewhere out of the Ordinary" after its research showed that younger audiences of 20 to 40-year-olds were not attending in as large numbers as previous years and needed to be convinced of the power of the art-form.

Yet both venues insist they are complementary, not rivals, and the diversity of offerings can only encourage interest. The Arts Council agrees. "Our view is that critical mass helps," Jacqueline Rose, its senior dance officer, said yesterday. "We are now in a situation where people have got a choice."

The Royal Ballet Swan Lake discomfited some critics - and, reportedly, even the legendary choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton - when it was presented in 1987, the first production of Sir Anthony Dowell after he became director of the company. The eminent musicologist Roland John Wiley had helped him go back to the original Russian sources of the ballet to create what is thought to be the most musically authentic production in the West.

Monica Mason, the director of the Royal Ballet, said yesterday she believed it remained the most handsome of productions and was likely to stay in the repertoire for years. "When we saw it in 1987 we all thought it looked rather beautiful and rather different and rather unusual," she said. "But we have just finished the general [rehearsal] and it comes up fresh and sparkling. It is still very beautiful and because it has real logic, it has stood the test of time.

"It is a classic production. But when someone comes to make a new production, they don't just want to do the same we've always known but in different costumes. What Anthony did was research to find out a little more about the original test and the ideas behind it."

Tchaikovsky was originally commissioned to write a score for Swan Lake in 1875 by Vladimir Petrovich Begichev, who ran the Russian Imperial Theatres in Moscow. Unlike ballets such as the Nutcracker, which is based on an existing story, the narrative appears to have been taken from several sources including the long-standing legend of the Swan-Maiden, women who turn into birds and viceversa who appear in different forms in both eastern and western literature. It is possible that Tchaikovsky was also inspired by Wagner's opera, Lohengrin, the story of a man with a mysterious past who arrives on a magical swan-boat.

Rehearsals began in 1876, even before Tchaikovsky had finished the score and the music apparently baffled the ballet master of the time, Julius Reisinger, and his dancers. It was not an instant success. A critic of the time wrote: "Mr Reisinger's dances are weak in the extreme."

Yet it ran for more than 40 performances when new ballets usually ran for less than half of that. Then in the mid-1890s, a new production was choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. Though still criticised - one critic wrote: "Swan Lake will hardly become a repertoire ballet and no one will regret it" - that version forms the basis of the standard ballet as we know it today.

Some of the controversy of the Dowell version was in its restoration of original features as would have been seen in 19th-century Russia, Ms Mason said. The Russian performances included young dancers as tiny cygnet swans, for instance, as does the Royal Ballet's.

Yet if the Royal Ballet's version ruffled the feathers of those in the know in 1987, Bourne's stunned the ballet establishment to the core and became a national talking point when it premiered nearly a decade ago. The "all-male Swan Lake," as it is known despite the inclusion of numerous female dancers, is credited in the dance world as being a breakthrough work that brought ballet to an entirely new audience and began an increase in audiences.

After its premiere in 1995, Bourne's Swan Lake transferred to the West End where it became theatre-land's longest-running ballet before it transferred to Broadway and then toured the UK. Its fame was such that it was the obvious choice for the conclusion of the hit movie Billy Elliot, when the young miner's son, Billy Elliot, is seen as an adult ballet star.

The grown-up Billy is played by Adam Cooper, recreating on film the role of the swan/stranger he created with Bourne. And its near-legendary status was no doubt behind extraordinary ticket sales this time. Sadler's Wells sold £259,0000 worth of tickets in one week at the end of November, the highest at the venue for any one show, and there are only a few seats left unsold.

Alistair Spalding, Sadler's Wells chief executive and artistic director, said there was always an audience for Swan Lake, which was one of the three most popular ballets. "But the fact that Matthew Bourne is doing this for seven weeks shows its appeal. We knew it was his most famous work but have been taken aback by the response.

"There's a whole number of people who have never come to Sadler's Wells before, but have come because of Matthew. He is an absolute phenomenon. This production opened up the world of dance for a whole new generation."

Research earlier this year suggested that a quarter of the population now either goes to see dance or participates - a figure which has been enlarged further by the enormous, surprise success of the updated celebrity version of ballroom in Strictly Come Dancing. The feeling is that dance is no longer treated with the suspicion epitomised by the young Billy Elliot's miner father in Stephen Daldry's film. "Dance has grown up," Jacqueline Rose, of the Arts Council, said. "I don't think it's the Cinderella art-form any more."

And it is not just the art world, but the money-men who agree. Garry McQuinn, of Bourne's producers, Clear Channel, has been working with him on mounting the new production for two years because it could see the potential. "A show such as this really expands the boundaries for dance and brings it to new audiences," he said. "We are gratified by the wonderful audience response to the show, which is now clearly a contemporary classic."