Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake is back on form at Sadler's Wells. This hugely popular production has transferred to the West End and Broadway, toured Britain and the world. At the last British revival, two years ago, I was sorry to see how much the performances had coarsened. Not this time. Exaggerations have been cut, the human characters have regained warmth and individuality, while those iconic male swans are fierce and bold.
As in the traditional ballet, the image of the swan is the most powerful aspect of the production. Bourne's male swan is a new ideal of unattainable beauty, of freedom.
The choreography for corps and leading Swan is powerfully muscled. They beat strong wings, wind their arms and torsos, twitch shoulder blades as if they were feathers. At this revival, the corps have presence and menace.
Bourne keeps the idea of a prince in love with a swan, and moves it into modern times. His dysfunctional royal family has Windsor echoes - a chilly queen, a repressed prince, an unsuitable girlfriend in unsuitable clothes. The storytelling is quick, helped by Lez Brotherston's superb designs.
Eleven years after its premiere, Bourne's production now has a touch of period detail. Its jokes are about an earlier generation of Royals, a time before the death of Diana. It's no longer now, but it still works.
On press night, Thomas Whitehead danced the Swan. He has a good mix of force and softness, the power of the swan's wings. As the Stranger, the man in whom the Prince recognises his Swan, he's mocking and quick. Throughout the evening, Whitehead gains presence - his movement becomes broader, his poses more sculptural. He overplays the Swan's silent howl of grief, but this is a striking performance.
Matthew Hart is cast against type as the Prince - he's an extrovert in an introverted role. Bourne's choreography is full of bottled-up physicality. Hart's mobile face and compact body don't suggest repression. He does too much, too enthusiastically, but his eagerness does suggest a painful vulnerability.
As the Queen, Saranne Curtin wittily mixes hauteur, understatement and voluptuousness. Nina Goldman is a delightful Girlfriend, with an innocence to her plotting and a touch of gawkiness in her long limbs. The court scenes are still broadly played; the ball scene could be more glamorous. But this is a strong revival of a much-loved production.
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