This is before the curtain went up. It’s a poor shot because of the low light, but it shows the swan on the curtain and I think that gives an insight into the ballet.
Look at that swan – it that a perfect swan? Not to my eyes. To my eyes it’s a slightly desperate swan trying to achieve lift-off.
And that’s what I think this version of Swan Lake is about.
Tchaikovsky composed the ballet in 1875-6, and there have been several alternative endings over the years since it was first performed.
In the original version Prince Siegfried’s birthday party is interrupted by his mother who tells him he needs to marry and settle down. But Siegfried only wants to marry for love.
That night he sees swans flying by and he and his friends set off to hunt them.
Siegfried gets separated from his friends and is about to shoot a swan when it turns into a woman, Odette.
Siegfried falls in love with Odette who explains that a spell has been cast on her and the other swans by a sorcerer and that only the undying love of someone who has never loved before can release them.
Until that happens they are swans by day and only return to human form at night.
In the next scene, the sorcerer attends a costume ball where the troubled Siegfried sees who he thinks is Odette but is in fact the sorcerer’s daughter.
Siegfried is fooled and declares his intention to marry the fake Odette.
The true Odette is heartbroken, and rather than be the cause of such unhappiness, Siegfried and his true love dive into the lake and are united in heaven.
Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake
A common comment about this production is that male dancers play the part of all the swans. And that’s true, but there are plenty of women playing other major parts.
One of the parts played by a woman is that of a gauche, upfront, frank, cheeky woman who is not at all of the prince’s class.
She thinks the prince is cute – and while she is interested in everything that money and position brings, she is essentially everywoman/man asking why the system of pomp and privilege is as it is.
She is ‘the Girlfriend’ – and Siegfriend likes her because she offers an escape from his tied-down life.
And in this version, the fake Odette plays fast and loose at the ball and enrages Siegfried to the point that he shoots at her. But he misses and kills the Girlfriend by mistake.
Siegfried is tried for the crime and carted off to the insane asylum. Then by a sleight of hand he is back in the palace where he is plagued by visions of swans attacking his Odette.
The swans kill Odette out of jealousy and Siegfried dies and the two ascend to heaven.
What Was The Message
The early scenes – at the birthday party, when carrying out official duties, at the ballet (yes, there is a ballet within the ballet), at a club – they are all danced with panache and they are easy to relate to.
The privilege, the duplicitous behaviour, the sex-mad mother of the prince, the knowing looks, the exchanged glances – all lovely.
Before the prince falls for Odette he is a bewildered, trapped figure. Nice and kind and at some level he is questioning why society is so perplexingly wrong.
But after he falls in love, after he sees the fake Odette dancing with everyone, he is jealous and wracked with unhappiness – and all for the love of the unattainable.
The pillars and foundations of the establishment can only be rocked and broken in dreams and death.