Migrating a Classic into the Modern Era

Classics are an interesting concept. There is often a misconception that a classic work must remain the same and must not be altered. But world-renowned choreographer Matthew Bourne proves that this certainly isn’t the case in this lasting reinterpretation of ballet classic Swan Lake which is about to return to Australian shores.

Photo Credit: Helen Maybanks

Photo Credit: Helen Maybanks

Dickens. Shakespeare. Tchaikovsky. Hugo. These artistic legends produced many ‘classics’ which have shaped the way society has developed. There is just one problem. Society has continued to evolve since these classics were created which can devalue their impact on the modern age.

Have you ever tried to read through Great Expectations or Oliver Twist? Sat through a traditional interpretation of Richard III? Watched a classically accurate mounting of Swan Lake? Or read Les Misérables? These works still contain enduring gravitas to the current society, but this can get lost in their out of date references, inaccessible formats and lack of appreciation towards the modern audience.

But these great artists have one thing in common. Their works have not remained sacred. Unlike many other art forms, these works have been allowed to reshape over time. Dickens has inspired many movie remakes (including a particular favourite of mine in Great Expectations) as well as the musical Oliver!. Shakespeare’s original words have been transplanted into modern situations. Les Misérables evolved into one of the world’s most popular musicals. And Matthew Bourne has revolutionised the great works of Tchaikovsky.

It is through these inventive and populist reinterpretations that these great classics continue to hold meaning within today’s society.

Populist is such a dirty word in the artistic sector. But that has not halted Matthew Bourne. Alongside more modern works such as Edward Scissorhands, Matthew Bourne has turned his hand at reinventing great classics such as Carmen, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty with the modern audience in mind. For example, his recent reimagination of Sleeping Beauty draws heavily on the theme of vampires which has enraptured most of the teenage population since the launch of Twilight.

This strong audience understanding has permeated into, arguably, his most famous work Swan Lake. Far from the original classic, this interpretations recasts the traditional group of female swans with men changing the meaning of the iconic swan characters from delicate and graceful creatures to characters of strength and menace (with a touch of beauty for good measure).

This provides a great point of difference from the traditional mounting of Swan Lake moving the story well into the 21st century through the interactions between the male swan and the Prince. It provides a great reason for audiences to return to this enduring piece of art. But most importantly, it ensures its longevity with modern audiences who weren’t top-of-mind when the original Tchaikovsky version was created.

The traditional Swan Lake was a masterpiece to the 1875 audience for which Tchaikovsky wrote the work. Modifying it with a contemporary audience in mind means that Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake will produce the same gravitas and emotion in a radically different society ensuring its longevity and meaning well into the future.

(That is until a point where it is completely reimagined again for another radically different audience in the future!)

Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is returning to Australia later this month flying into Melbourne’s Regent Theatre from October 16-25 before migrating north to Sydney’s Theatre Royal for as season running October 28-November 2. For more information visit swanlaketour.com