Birdbrain, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, ****

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The Independent Culture

I had no idea how much fun Birdbrain would provide. This is Garry Stewart's light-hearted take on Swan Lake for the Australian Dance Theatre, which he took over in 1999 (London saw this Adelaide company years ago under different leadership). His attitude to Tchaikovsky's ballet is irreverent but never irrelevant, starting with a scratchy recording that skips through highlights of the music in a couple of minutes. Thereafter, a techno soundtrack created by Jad McAdam and Luke Smiles takes over.

I had no idea how much fun Birdbrain would provide. This is Garry Stewart's light-hearted take on Swan Lake for the Australian Dance Theatre, which he took over in 1999 (London saw this Adelaide company years ago under different leadership). His attitude to Tchaikovsky's ballet is irreverent but never irrelevant, starting with a scratchy recording that skips through highlights of the music in a couple of minutes. Thereafter, a techno soundtrack created by Jad McAdam and Luke Smiles takes over.

Near the beginning, Stewart shows, on a screen behind the stage, a long list of factors needed for a successful ballet. Besides such predictable elements as virtuosity, grace and meaning, he includes marketing and sex appeal. Bright boy – he has made sure that Birdbrain has both.

The cast of 11 all play multiple roles, with names on their T-shirts to identify hero or legend, Odettes or Odiles (quite a few of them, in both genders), "corps" or "swans", "tragedy queen", "lake", even at one point "the story thus far", which introduces an amazingly quick series of mime gestures. There are some abstract labels, too, indicating Stewart's thoughts about the ballet: "peasant joy" coupled with "royal disdain"; "lust and despair"; even one indicating "more irrelevant revelry".

We get the famous 32 fouettés, too, on bare feet and shared among four dancers, but counted out on the screen at the back of the stage. There are, for once, real arrows shot from a real bow – but at a feathery heart, not at swans, reminding us that this is a love story. Also, we see swans turning into women, which should happen in every conventional Swan Lake but rarely does.

The dancers are all kept pretty busy, not only with their continual changes of T-shirt but with multiple kinds of movement: breakdance and hip hop, jumping and landing flat, yoga, contortions, headstands and acrobatics, not to mention classical ballet, this latter especially in pas de deux allusions. The choreography is not so continuously interesting as a good straightforward classic Swan Lake would be (if we ever had the luck to see one nowadays), but does offer speed, strength, variety, skill and a lot of daring, accomplished by the whole team.

And because Stewart is concentrating on what he calls the crevices of the narrative, every now and again he comes up with something really striking that illuminates the subject. I mentioned the swans turning into women; even more notable is the way he takes what is usually a brief moment of acting, as the lovers hurl themselves into the water, and makes a big dance climax of it. Yes, Birdbrain is fun, but not only fun.

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