I have loved ballet all my life. Since day one it has been filled with Barbie ballet DVDs, ballet dolls and of course ballet lessons. While my pointe shoes may not be used as much since going to University, I still spend most of my time either watching ballet, or wishing I was. My family knows this, so tickets to see the latest shows is an easy and frequently given gift. Of course, I don’t mind- in fact I love it. After all it was a gift to see Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake last year.
For non-viewers of ballet, Matthew Bourne is a household name in the ballet world; he is the Beyonce of ballet directors and choreographers. And there is nothing more iconic than his version of Swan Lake. First premiering in November 1995, the ballet has been shown repeatedly ever since. Not only collecting over 30 international awards, you may recognise it from the end of the movie Billy Elliott, as adult Billy plays the new title role of the main Swan. In his reinvention, Bourne shifts the plot away from the classic heroine Swan Maiden of Odette to the Prince Siegfried and, most importantly, makes all the swans male. At the time, this was almost laughed at; traditionally Swan Lake is such a female dominated cast with gracefully delicate female swans. Nobody saw it working. Instead, Bourne used the aggression of real swans as his inspiration, putting masculinity at the heart of this ballet. And it worked.
So, as you can imagine, I was overjoyed at having the chance to see the performance- but also apprehensive. I had heard so much about it, how extraordinary it was, how much I’d love it and I was nervous whether it had been over-hyped. I had seen Bourne’s Beauty and the Beast and, while I enjoyed it, it remained solely as enjoyable. I went with my grandparents and my mum, sat down, and watched one of the most intense, moving and brilliantly executed ballets I had ever seen. I could rant about every detail and its significance to the overall performance, but I’ll limit myself. The sets and costumes were stunning and thoroughly modern, the long scenes built tension to unbearable levels and the technicality in the performers was undeniably breath-taking. Young men apparently can spend years in Matthew Bourne’s ‘Swan School’ and boy, you could tell. But, the story in conjunction with the choreography was the highlight. The Prince’s mental health due to a seemingly cold Mother and the pressures of Royal life shown via the Swans was incredible. I will refrain from details because I really don’t want to spoil it; for once I feel like you can spoil a ballet. I will say, the last act had me very literally on the edge of my seat, was the pinnacle of something bigger than I can explain and finally left me, and my whole family, entirely speechless. I didn’t talk the entire way home- it didn’t feel right to.
What is good about the story is that the Swans can be interpreted in many different ways, speaking to a wide range of individual experiences. You may have seen for some viewers the ballet is about the repression of the Prince’s homosexuality. For me, a couple of weeks before I watched the ballet, I had heard some very upsetting news. When I did watch it, the ballet was everything in my mind at once. It was everything I wanted to see, what I couldn’t express at the time. It was a show that made me feel less alone. How brilliant Bourne was to make the show so vague, so personal and so universal.
I think it was the perfect pick for Billy Elliott. It’s about fighting powers you can’t control, the idea of masculinity and your own oppressive mind. It’s a revolutionary ballet. Ballet has a history of being inventive and dynamic which many people don’t realise; for a while the idea of stuffy old traditional ballet became accepted as the norm. Bourne shows us via his best work that this isn’t the case. Ballet can be beautiful, athletic, emotional and ground-breaking, if you give it the chance.