Dance: Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake, Sadler's Wells, London

Don't feed the birds. They bite
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The Independent Culture

'They're back!" reads the poster for Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake, captioning a shot of male dancers with white feathered thighs. On one level it's simply a prod to those who still haven't got around to seeing the epoch-making dance spectacle of the 1990s, but it's also a nod to one of Bourne's inspirations. It was Hitchcock, of course, who first exploited the inimical side of bird life, the potential for a bundle of beak and feathers to turn nasty. "They're back!", I think you'll find, is a quotation from The Birds, a film to which Bourne has always acknowledged a debt. Yet in terms of emotional power, even of suspense, this phenomenal, enduring ballet is its equal.

What can there be left to say about a production now in its 12th year, that holds records as the longest-running ballet on Broadway as well as in the West End, has picked up enough international gongs to start a mint, and been studied at A-level along the way? There's a surprising amount to say, as it happens, thanks to its remarkable capacity to move with the times, and intelligent re-casting.

Take the Prince's unsuitable girlfriend. Last time the show was in town this character was beginning to look tired; the jokes seemed to be flagged up with a thought for the partially sighted, her comic timing gaping like a crater. Enter Nina Goldman, a New York performer the show picked up on its travels. Has she been studying The Catherine Tate Show? If she has, it works for me. She's got the "How ditsy am I?" expression down to an art, and what she does with that puffball skirt is priceless.

Another revelation is Saranne Curtin's steely-hearted Queen, who inhabits her satin gowns with a Liz Taylor lushness but won't hug her son for fear he'll leave finger marks. Over time, both these pivotal female roles have become more severely stylised, but Curtin counteracts any 2-D reduction with the subtlest use of her eyelids, betraying a full set of fears and needs of her own. "But I thought it was an all-male Swan Lake!" said someone behind me. It's odd how false information sticks.

Certainly the emotional crux of the piece is strongly masculine, led by a very British, very repressed Prince. In the cast I saw, Simon Williams (a dead ringer for the footballer Michael Owen) internalised his hurt with heartbreaking thoroughness, to the extent that you could read desperation in the stiffening of his neck, making his final psychotic outburst all the more harrowing. Thomas Whitehead, on loan from the Royal Ballet as the Swan that becomes the young royal's obsession, matched him beautifully. He's not as bulkily built, or as tall, as other dancers who have made a name in this role, but he has a hungry avidity that compensates, a gaze as cold as stone, and a lean musculature that holds endless interest, even and especially when he turns his back. As the gate-crashing Stranger at the Prince's party, Whitehead looks even more at home, swivelling his black leather-clad hips in lethally seductive turns, and swirling the Queen over tables, to her delight and her son's despair. His wrist-to-elbow lick, delivered to a monarch expecting a kiss on the hand, hits the musical cadence spot-on.

This is theatre with two faces. What begins as a light satire morphs halfway through into psychological drama, complete with betrayal, mental breakdown and finally violence and death, though whether you see the swans as literal or the product of a damaged mind is left for you to decide. The wonder - and on my seventh or eighth viewing it's still a wonder to me - is that Bourne did not need to do anything to Tchaikovsky's score to make it fit this scenario. It's as if the music had been waiting, for more than 100 years, like a glove waiting for his hand to slip into it.

Some of the credit must go to Rowland Lee for orchestrations that enable a pared-down pit ensemble to deliver the full grandeur and pathos of Tchaikovsky's climaxes. Conductor Brett Morris does a fine job with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, resisting any temptation to up the tempi, allowing every phrase its brooding, gorgeous weight. The corps, too, whether appearing as royal flunkeys, boozy sailors, or those eerily disdainful swans, move with clean technique and clear purpose. If ever a contemporary ballet deserved classic status, this one does.

* Sadler's Wells, EC1 (0870 737 7737), until 21 January