Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake [London 2019]

Iconic modern dance favourite Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake makes a welcome return in a freshly re-polished staging.

Seeing at least one production by New Adventures each year has made it clear that their quality control is of the very highest order. At every performance, the costumes sparkle, the set gleams, the music is splendid and energy flows with free abandon from the supremely talented cast. Every night is opening night, and the full cast and crew put their soul into giving the audience the very best show possible. 

Gently re-designed again for another all-conquering tour, 23-year-old ballet Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake retains an exotic allure. Audiences may think they know the show, due to familiarity with the key images, but the work still excites and shocks. It is great to hear the audience discussing the show on the way out rather than absently donning coats and heading for the train.

In an unusual piece of scheduling, Man in Chair managed to see two different versions of Swan Lake on this day, spending the afternoon at the mighty Coliseum for English National Ballet’s highly traditional Swan Lake. Comparing the two works in such proximity brought the chance to marvel again at Bourne’s ingenuity in generating storytelling details to match the music and honouring the original while telling an affecting tale that exists entirely in a world of its own. 

The loneliness of the unfulfilled young gay man, the media’s fascination with the Royals and the attraction of the unattainable are amongst the themes of the work that still readily resonate today. The woe-begotten Prince craves the attention and affection of his mother, The (Ice) Queen. Incapable of blending into society, and discovering his “Girlfriend” has been paid by The Private Secretary, The Prince is about to drown himself in the lake when he happens upon a flock of male swans.

The extraordinary scene as The Prince finds solace at the lake with the proud, beautiful swans remains the heart of the ballet. The choreography has lost none of its impact, and the talent available to play the swans has only increased with time. Unlike traditional pas de deux, the male-male coupling allows for symmetry, and Bourne makes extensive use of this to clearly demonstrate the pairing of The Prince and The Swan. 

While the Coliseum may house a larger orchestra, the 29 musicians at Sadler’s Wells are more than ample. Conductor Brett Morris generates a high level of volume for climactic moments to great effect. 

Designer Lez Brotherston has retained the staging concept and the majority of the designs, with subtle tweaks along the way. A good example is the Swank Bar, where the patrons are more streamlined in appearance and less quirky now. The tawdry stripper has her own signature colour of midnight blue now, instead of sharing hot pink with The Girlfriend. Likewise, lighting designer Paule Constable has ensured that the lighting design is nothing short of pristine. 

The current season has the benefit of a particularly luxurious piece of casting, with Royal Ballet Principal Matthew Ball sharing the role of The Swan. At this performance, Ball made a powerful impression, dancing with seemingly unlimited strength and consummate flair. Brutishly handsome, Ball held the attention of the full royal court with good reason as The Stranger crashed the Royal Ball. 

Dancing opposite Ball made Dominic North as The Prince look even more small and vulnerable. One of New Adventures stalwart stars, North is as expressive with his lithe body as he is with deceptively boyish face. Seamlessly flipping from placidly noble to naively confused to sympathetically sorrowful, North basically carries the entirety of the first half, driving along the action and engaging full audience affection. North’s abstract solo work is as hauntingly affecting as it is supremely athletic.


Nicole Kabera was all too convincing in the coveted role of The Queen, not giving away so much as a flicker of concern for her desperate son. Kabera deliciously  highlighted The Queen’s bloodthirsty pursuit of male company, cutting a real figure in Brotherston’s gleaming satin gowns. 

Freya Field delighted as the daffy Girlfriend, later underpinning the role with a heart of decency. 

Seemingly stronger every year, the ensemble shone as the dancers effortlessly played any number of roles. Particular highlights begin, of course, with the Swans, but also include the stunning Princesses at the Royal Ball. 

While the current season is sold out, future engagements by New Adventures are highly anticipated.

Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake was reviewed 7pm Sunday 6 January 2019 at Sadler’s Wells, London where it plays until 27 January 2019 before touring to multiple UK venues. 

Photos: Jonah Persson

3 replies »

  1. This production has amazing legs……and how great to see it performed with a live orchestra.
    Am I right in remembering that the Australian seasons used pre-recorded music similar to the filmed versions ?

    • Yes, every time I have seen the company in Australia they have used recorded music. I think the Sadlers Wells season is considered to be special. The live music certainly added to the atmosphere!

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