A tale of two Lakes and two victims adrift in two dysfunctional courts

The Swan Lakes of Matthew Bourne and Graeme Murphy return to the stage as reliably as cherry blossoms in Japan in April, flowering jacaranda trees in Australia in November, and Nutcrackers at Christmas.

Bourne’s ballet, that premiered in 1995, and Murphy’s in 2002, have both become Swan Lake perennials for their respective companies.

Bourne’s production recently toured to Melbourne and Sydney while Murphy’s toured to California last month and will return to Sydney in February 2015.

The two Swan Lakes have much in common, with each centred on a helpless and vulnerable hero or heroine, the Prince in Bourne’s production and Odette in Murphy’s ballet.

Both victims reach their lowest point of despair when they are sent to a mental hospital or sanatorium where they are kept against their will.

Bourne and Murphy have created similar narratives in the tensions between the victims (the lonely Prince and the innocent bride, Odette), and the manipulators, (the bogan Girlfriend, the Queen, The Stranger and Murphy’s bitchy Baroness).

Both are set within a dysfunctional royal family and both choreographers have made imaginative use of the Tchaikovsky score. I particularly like the way that Bourne used the Black Swan coda music for a group of pushy guests at the party scene.

The big difference of course is the swans, with Bourne depicting aggressive males who turn against their leader, while Murphy’s female swans protect and grieve for their leader, Odette.

The costumes for Bourne’s bare-chested swans, now so familiar, were a fascinating idea 20 years ago, but Kristian Fredrikson’s swan costumes for Murphy’s Swan Lake are not as appealing as those he designed for the court scenes, in particular the elegant costumes for the wedding guests in Act 1 and the magnificent, long bridal dress worn by Odette.

Another difference is the emphasis on the Prince. Murphy’s Prince Siegfried is not the same as Prince Siegfried in the traditional Swan Lake in which he is tricked into betraying Odette. Instead he is fully aware of his weakness in marrying one woman but continuing his affair with another. Bourne’s Prince flirts with the Girfriend but it’s not a serious relationship. For the main part he is a solitary, tragic figure, betrayed by everyone and cruelly rejected by his mother.

The Australian Ballet has presented Murphy’s Swan Lake as a calling card around the world and it has often received favourable reviews, especially in Australia, Wales, London and Paris in the years 2002 to 2006. But in New York in 2012 and most recently in California, the reviews were not so positive, with some critics suggesting that the ballet’s reference to the British royal triangle of Diana, Charles and Camilla, still in the news in 2002 (Diana died in 1997) has reached its use by date. (Camilla and Charles have now been married for almost a decade).

When I first saw Bourne’s Swan Lake I thought there were aspects of the British Royals but now I see a much stronger link with the fictional royals of Denmark. Bourne’s Prince and the Queen are in a similar uneasy relationship as Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, and his mother, Queen Gertrude.

Bourne’s Queen is narcissistic and probably, like Gertrude, carrying a burden of guilt, but her veneer is shiny and spectacular, dressed as she is in one of the most glamorous designs of the 20th century, Dior’s post World War 2 New Look.

There’s a two decade jump in the designs for Bourne’s Swan Lake as the party goers’ costumes in the disco/bar scene are reminiscent of London’s Swinging Sixties.

The designs leap back to the 19th century, when the Royals watch a performance of a romantic ballet, circa 1832, with a fluttering Sylph in white, her partner in green shorts and white tights, and the Sylph’s friends dressed in butterfly costumes. The mock ballet is laugh out loud funny no matter how many times we might have seen it.

The cast I saw in Sydney was led by two Christophers – Chris Trenfield as The Swan/Stranger and Christopher Marney as the Prince. They were both outstanding. They’ve both been dancing these roles for years but, at least at the performance I watched, the dancers were so committed, so energetic and so believable in the story they told, that they might have been dancing at the premiere.

The photographers who took the photos at left are not individually named, as the images I have accessed are not all credited. The program lists four production photographers – Bill Cooper, Hugo Glendinning, Helen Maybanks and Simon Turtle.

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At the bar in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake

Christopher Marney, centre right, in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake

Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake

The swan corps, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake

Chris Trenfield as the Swan in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake