Last night I went to the ballet. I haven’t been to the ballet since I was a child and the memories I have of it are hazy at best. It was Swan Lake at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford and, most of all, I remember being seated so far over to one side that we could only see half the action on the stage. Of the story I remember nothing. Therefore I had few expectations of what to expect.
We started with dinner at Jamie’s Italian in Norwich. I absolutely love Jamie Oliver. If I’m cooking for friends or family I will, more often than not, use a recipe from one of the three Jamie Oliver cookbooks I own. My go to dinner is Jamie’s Hungover Noodles from his Save With Jamie cookbook; in fact, I’m writing this having just finished a bowl of said noodles, delish! Now, obviously, Jamie doesn’t actually cook your dinner at his Italian in Norwich but, I assume the chefs are selected to provide the same high quality of food I would expect from the man himself. The meal did not disappoint. Our waitress was bubbly and enthusiastic without coming across as disingenuous. The décor was an interesting blend of William Morris print wallpaper and Jamie-related merchandise, alongside quirky Norwich themed graffiti murals. Just the sort of mismatch I’ve come to expect following countless cookery shows admiring his thrown together kitchen style. It was a well selected start to a highly cultural evening.
On the way to the Theatre Royal Norwich we found ourselves dodging sleet as the weather decided to herald winter early. Still warmed from my delish Penne Arrabbiata and snuggled in my Stacee Jaxx/Margot Tenenbaum faux fur and Primark knitwear the sleet did little to put a dampener on the mood. Eventually we were warm and heading for our seats in the stalls, a little over to the side but close enough to the middle to appreciate all the onstage action. Whist waiting for curtain up I read bits of the programme, checked into Facebook so all my friends could appreciate how cultured I was being and endured the occasional minor inconvenience of someone squeezing past to their seats. Although I still had few expectations I was surprised to learn that the corps de ballet would be all male. For Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake there would be no graceful swan maidens. I also discovered that, according to Matthew Bourne it wasn’t so much a ballet as contemporary dance.
As the music began and the lights slowly lit up the stage behind the curtain, I found myself sitting to attention, curious to see how this virtually all male contemporary dance would go. Gradually the shape of a bed came into view, above it a large window. In the bed we see the Prince who is sleeping fitfully, clearly dreaming. Above him through the window rises the form of a male swan. The scene is only a few minutes long but in that time I didn’t only get goosebumps, I had shivers up and down my arms and legs. This was going to be amazing.
As the story unfolds we see a Prince shunned by his mother, bored of the day to day official business, desperate to find somewhere to fit in and an ounce of affection. Eventually, drunk and tired of his miserable life he finds himself in a park. As he hastily scribbles a note, you realise he is likely contemplating suicide. My heart was in my mouth and I could feel tears pricking at the corner of my eyes. Most everyone knows how it feels to want to be accepted and a large number of us knows how it feels when it seems there is nowhere to turn. This moment could happen to any one of us, any one of us could be the Prince. As he runs, presumably to throw himself in the lake, he is confronted by the swans. A moment of relief quickly turns to fear for the Prince. These swans are menacing. They crowd around him, they hiss, they kick out. As they dance you switch between amazement at the skill and talent involved and anxiety for the Prince because we all know a swan can break a man’s arm. Time and time again I found myself having to remind myself to breathe as I watched, afraid that they would turn on him and kill him. Gradually one swan stands out from the rest. The Swan. He is beautiful, graceful, powerful and he and the Prince dance, sometimes apparently together, other times, the Prince mirroring the Swan’s movements.
The whole of Act 2 is dedicated to the Prince dancing with the swans. Each time it looks like the dance has come to an end it begins again, sometimes only a few, other times the whole of the corps de ballet, now and then just the Prince and the Swan. I didn’t want it to end. Although I was aware there was a story that needed to be told, that we had to explore the Prince’s return to his life and duties I could have watched the swans dance for the rest of the night and still I’d have wanted more. I have never seen anything so captivating. I’m pretty sure if the ballet I had seen as a child had captured a fraction of the intensity it would have stuck with me. In the interview in the programme, Matthew Bourne said there had been walk outs when the ballet was first shown 18 years ago. People had complained about the male swan dancing for the male Prince and the lack of girls in tutus. Not once did I find myself thinking oh, that’s a bit weird, it’s a bloke dancing with/for another bloke. Simply because it is a swan dancing with/for a man. For me there was never a gender issue, in fact the piece surpasses gender. I suppose by the end you could argue it’s about sexuality but I think that would be missing point somewhat. By the end of the Act I was breathless.
I couldn’t wait for the second half. What was going to happen to the Prince? How does the black swan fit in? Were the swans really dancing with him or was it in his mind?
The second half opened with a Gala ball, dignitaries and Princesses from other kingdoms were in attendance, but again we see the Prince struggling to fit in. In a room of his contemporaries he is other. Enter the Stranger. Leather clad and exuding sexual power and animal magnetism he toys with each of the female guests, flirts with the queen and seems to bump and grind with the Prince. Clearly he is the Black Swan and yet he is not. There is no human swan; the Swan is in fact a metaphor representative of the Prince’s inner turmoil and desire for freedom. In the final acts this is ever more apparent, right up until the tragic end.
I don’t want to say too much more about the dénouement other than I was astonished. And heartbroken. I’m normally a sucker for sad endings but found myself aghast rather than tearful. My parents were concerned as, following the most enthusiastic clapping I have ever offered a performance, I gathered my things in silence and left the theatre deep in thought. I was overwhelmed, amazed, impressed. I needed to collect myself and mull over what I had experienced before I dared speak.
By the time I got home I was certain of one thing, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is a true tour de force. It is possibly among the most wonderful things I have seen or ever will see. I want to see it again and yet I fear a second viewing will detract from the magic of the first. I want to see every production he has ever choreographed and yet I don’t in case they will not compare. One thing’s for sure I am at a loss to think of a production, be it ballet, opera, play or musical, which comes even close. One thing’s for sure I will never look at swans the same way again.