FOR most people, swans are delicate, gentle and feminine, but a group of big, aggressive male “swans” will challenge that traditional concept with Matthew Bourne’s musical ballet “Swan Lake” to be performed in Shanghai next month.
Instead of being the vulnerable victim of an evil wizard, the white swans in Bourne’s “Swan Lake” play the role of rescuer to the prince who has been longing for love and care.
The ballet starring Jonathan Ollivier and Simon Williams will be staged at Shanghai Culture Square from September 25 to October 5.
Though the ballet retains the classic name as well as Tchaikovsky’s music, Bourne’s “Swan Lake” tells a very different story. Here, the prince, who is the rescuer in the classic version of “Swan Lake,” is a young man longing for love and affection, which he cannot get from his family.
The swans, projecting power, confidence and freedom, give the prince the love and attention he craves.
Eighteen bare-chested and barefoot male dancers will play the roles of swans instead of the traditional beautiful female ones. They are expected to exhibit masculine beauty via strong, muscular movements rather than skills on toes.
Though it won a Tony Award for choreography and Oliver Award for best new dance production, Bourne’s version shocked many audiences when it premiered at Sadler’s Wells in London in 1995, says Ollivier, who plays both the leading swan and the stranger in the show.
“Many people expected to see a classic ballet that features the fairytale romance between a man and a woman, so it surprised them to see a group of male swans exhibiting their power and confidence at the front of the stage,” says Ollivier.
In addition, many contemporary elements including jazz are widely used in the show to subvert the classics.
Having males playing the swans has aroused wide discussion about whether there is gay romance between the prince and leading swan. Ollivier says no.
“My role is a swan rather than a man. It doesn’t matter whether it is a male or a female swan; it is just an ideal image of power, masculinity and freedom, which the prince desires,” says Ollivier. “Rather than loving or wanting the swan, the prince wants to become the swan.”
Chinese choreographer Jin Xing was impressed by Bourne’s “Swan Lake” when she first saw it in Britain more than a dozen years ago.
She had been considering producing a “Swan Lake” of her own, since she thought the traditional fairytale version too simple to fully convey the messages in Tchaikovsky’s music. But she gave it up after seeing Bourne’s version.
“There are so many messages perfectly conveyed through the music and dancers. I don’t think I can do any better,” says Jin.
Rather than focusing on the skills on toes as most classic ballet does, Bourn attached much importance to storytelling, which is one of the major reasons it’s labeled as a musical ballet rather than a traditional ballet, according to Fei Yuanhong, program director of Shanghai Culture Square.
For example, Bourn cut off the whole first act of the prince’s birthday party, and put in a brief story about the prince’s sadness during childhood, such as when he was forced to sleep alone regardless of nightmares and break up with the girl he liked.
The emphasis on storytelling poses much demand on the dancers, especially for the swans, Ollivier says. The dancers not only need to complete the beautiful body movements, but also convey emotion at the same time.
“In classic ballet, it is more about what you can do and what audiences expect to see. But in this “Swan Lake,” you have to make each movement mean something apart from the beautiful shapes,” says Ollivier.
Bourne’s “Swan Lake” gives much room for male dancers, who may hardly be noticed in traditional ballets, to display their ability and beauty.
“Traditionally, if you don’t notice the male dancer in ballet, it means that he is a good partner. But in this version, all the male swans dance at the forefront. We feel great there,” says Ollivier.
Barefoot and bare-chested, the male swans are expected to show the human body as gentle and aggressive at the same time.
“With the lighting and sweat, audiences can see the muscles working in such a beautiful way,” says Ollivier. “That is what we can show as male dancers, and it is a major difference which audiences can appreciate between our swans and the traditional ones.”