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The Ways in Which Dance Performance Can Embody Different Conceptions: Review of Swan Lake by Matthew Bourne

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This essay will study and devise an exploration of the piece, Swan Lake by Matthew Bourne. Exploring the notions of gender identity and how society has constructed specific behaviour norms for that particular sex. Discussing the views of Susan L. Foster (2009) and how she declares “The performance of strongly gendered actions by both male and female bodies offers up a powerful representation of the feminine as a gendered construct”. Foster exclaims that gender roles within performances are socially constructed, I will be challenging this perspective when analysing Bourne’s Piece. Throughout my essay I will examine this statement but through masculinity within performances, such as how Bourne turned what was seen as something feminine into something masculine. Adshead Model of Dance analysis looks at performances in “deep and informing” ways in order to comprehend how the dance has been constructed. This model of analysis interprets dance through stages consisting of description of the dance, discerning the form, interpretation and evaluation. I will be using this process to study Matthew Bourne’s pas de duex in act two of swan lake.

Considering the movements of both dancers in order to understand why each move was created, and how the pas de deux performance differs from what would be considered a ‘standard’ male and female duet that you might see at a traditional ballet. According to a network forum gender identity is acknowledged as “a personal conception of oneself as a male or female”. Gender identity is how a person describes themselves as being either male or female and differs from their type of sex. This meaning that, from birth, you are given your gender identity based on your biological sex. A person’s specification can split between two main characteristics, this being, Binary (man or woman) and Non-Binary (a person who choses not to associate with mainstream identity roles). Matthew Bourne’s swan lake indirectly relates to a non-binary identification when it comes to gender roles. Bourne casting all male dancers for roles that would conventionally be performed by females’ challenges gender identities within what was once seen as ‘traditional’. Bourne’s rendition of swan lake differs from the traditional production composed by Pyotr IIyich Tchaikovsky. The original performance of Swan Lake consists of a Prince, Siegfried, who commences a hunt one evening and follows a congregation of swans.

Throughout the performance we see one of the swans transform into a woman, Odette, exclaiming that herself and the other swans were transformed by Baron von Rothbart who is the typical ‘evil’ character. The love story between Siegfried and Odette begins to bloom throughout, however the spell that Odette is under can be broken only by someone who has never loved before and must confess their everlasting love towards her. The story continues to unfold and ends in tragedy as both the prince and Odette take their lives together. This is an example of what is commonly seen as a traditional ballet storyline, demonstrating two main characters with higher authority (prince and princess) and romantically involving them with one-another, for the production to result in some form of devastation thus leaving the audience with a sense of remorse.

Contrastingly, Bourne decides to steer from the mainstream narrative and creates a modernised concoction of Swan Lake. His narrative consists of a prince who is overshadowed by his controlling mother figure and finds himself in awe of a swan, as he sees the swan as being something that he never had and has longed for which is to not just be seen as a royal figure and as someone “who needs, in the most basic and simple way to be held”. Bourne’s main component that stands out from Tchaikovsky’s version, is the all-male swan casting which would traditionally be played by females. Speculations were made upon the announcement of this production some “couldn’t accept the concept of male swans” and most “assumed it would be a sendup, with men in drag”. Opinions began to widen within theatre society and “when people heard that the swans in Bourne’s version were all male, the immediate connotation was that they must be homosexual”. Many could not come to terms with the idea that males could portray feminine characters.

To most, the new rendering of what was known as a ‘classical’ ballet, agitated viewers, due to the fact of it being a controversial storyline. In the era of 1995, it wasn’t a common occurrence to see men performing feminine roles. Most people associate a swan as being something of a delicate figure, for example Bourne states how he had “daydreamed through many performances of swan lake, thinking the dancing tutus only ever conveyed one aspect of swans” which was their exquisiteness and grace. Society has made us believe, that within ballets certain genders must play certain roles depending on their physical appearance. Society manipulates what is understood as being feminine or masculine and that females should be feminine and delicate and that men should be masculine and strong. Swan lake was given the status label of “the gay ballet”, this statement made Bourne “continuously refute with great difficulty, due to society’s definitions of masculinity”. The article from the Independent, states, “This depiction of male love, both fierce and tender, was ground breaking; decades on, it’s still fairly rare to see anything but heterosexual love on dance stages.” This quote further highlights that non-normative gender configurations are still being seen as something that is ‘out of the ordinary’, and that males shouldn’t play a ‘typical’ female role or vice versa for females. Matthew Bourne declares, “Obviously, ballet is full of princes and princesses but were saying that there is more to them than the more formal side that ballet usually shows. We’re saying that royalty has another side: that there are real people beneath that ballet-like exterior” (Macaulay, 1999). This shows that within his piece he has tried to convey a deeper message, underlining how traditional ballets show only the simplest form of characteristics of a person; exhibiting the notion that the characters that the performers are playing have a one dimensional personality, so if they are smiling this should demonstrate to an audience that they are happy, but this is not always the case.

Continuing on from this argument, in relation to gender identity, what Matthew Bourne states about how ‘royalty has another side’ and ‘that there are real people beneath that ballet-like exterior’ has an in-direct relevance to gender, signifying that people may be seen as a male or female individual on the outside but is not necessarily what they may feel like on the inside. In, “Bourne’s Act II pas de deux, of course, is between two men instead, but still obviously depicting romantic love, thus challenging how men relate to each other in dance”. In this section Bourne creates a pivotal moment in the performance. Creating a pas de deux between two men was not seen as ‘the normal’ approach within a ballet performance. His choreography choices of course were intentional in order to “dramatically question the traditional gender constructions of classical ballet”. His intentions with this have created a distinct perspective on gender identity and how the ideas surrounding what is known as being feminine can go beyond and break this barrier that many perceive as a normality. Ballets have started to bow down to conventional standards and now “relies on what has become “norms”, standards and traditions make the art form, and gender roles are a large part of it, as there are traditionally ways and roles that each gender dances” (Golucke, 2015).

In close detail throughout my research I studied and analysed the Pas de Deux section between the prince and the swan. According to Brennan, “analysis is the examination of a whole to distinguish its component parts” breaking a piece down and looking at it in depth to understand the concept of why it was done in a particular way. Using the Adshead model of analysis I looked at the pas de deux section in great detail in order to gain a “deep and informed response to the dance itself” (Adshead, 1988). At the beginning of the pas de duex the comparison in levels shown by the prince and the swan indicate different authoritative roles. The prince kneeling in the downstage corner displays a vulnerable persona which is a comparison to the swan’s higher levelling in the upstage corner of the stage. This levelling arrangement can imply relation to how the swan holds authority over the prince, presenting a sense of control. The vulnerability that the prince is showing in the opening section of the pas de deux can often be seen as relating to a feminine quality. Often, we see most males perform more dominating roles. Bourne has flipped this gender normality by allowing a male character to embody weakness on stage. The way the Swan utilises and dominates the stage suggests he is the one in power; moving with flamboyant and extravagant gestures the swan demonstrates the notion to the audience that he is the one in control. This choice of levels between the two clearly highlights the different personalities the two characters have. In all aspects of the duet, the swan is creating seductive movements towards the prince, thus demonstrating a more feminine role in many dance pieces. Commonly it is known for a female character to seduce a male however in Bourne’s rendition he has a male figure seduce another male. Creating a dramatic effect, the swan keeps constant focus on the prince throughout his solo moment, the intense glare that the swan encompasses, creates superiority, and demonstrates ‘manly’ qualities which contradicts to the traditional angelic essence the swans would usually convey. At around 2 minutes 34 seconds into the duet we start to see more ‘loving’ contact between the pair, as the swan gently places his arm against the prince’s face in a slow-moving gesture, thus portraying to the audience the connection that they have with one another.

In addition to the romantic elements we see, at 3:13 the gestures go from rapid dynamics into more calm and soft articulations with their bodies. At the time of 4:34 the prince holds onto the swan tightly round the neck and contracts his body in towards the swan, the swan then cradles the prince in a child-like manner. The way in which the swan holds the prince in this section adds to the element of vulnerability that has been shown throughout.

Continuing on from this, the way in which the prince is holding onto the swan further demonstrates to the audience the princes want and need to be loved. Tims states this aspect in an online review, “the prince’s relationship with the swan is more about a repressed young mans need to be loved, rather than about any sexual desire.” “Instead, his ballet seems to imply that what is masculine and what is feminine is much more complex, and that both attributes can be found in any one individual.”

Matthew Bourne chose to go against mainstream ballet performances and challenge what was seen as normal. Golucke implies that both genders can embody characteristic traits of both male and female ‘conventional’ qualities and it be seen as something that is normal. Bourne’s swan lake has challenged the notion of what it means to be a man or a woman as a gendered construct. He turned something that was once seen as ‘feminine’ into something masculine but still incorporated both into one. Analysing the movements of the swan and the prince; going into further detail of what it means to be a certain gender can change any perspective of a piece. As a society today we tend to set standards and conventional ways in order for us to make some kind of sense out of situations. “A group of men dancing, like a swan, which has been commonly known as a feminine animal, led to the disillusionment of the audience, who had made assumptions before they had even seen the piece”.

The question to conclude my essay is that as a society are we to blame for creating these gender identity illusions as we assume things should be a certain way. For example, we associate swans as being “commonly known as a feminine animal” but where did this notion expand from?


  1. Adshead, J. (ed.) (1988) Dance Analysis: Theory and Practice. London: Dance Books. pp. 6 – 112.
  2. Anderson, Z. (2018). Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, review: All-male reinvention of the world’s favourite ballet is still a marvel. [online] The Independent. Available at: [Accessed 1 Dec. 2020].
  3. Bourne, M. and Macaulay, A. (2011). Matthew Bourne and his adventures in dance. London: Faber and Faber. pp. 208 – 220
  4. Brennan, M.A. (1999) ‘Every Little Movement Has a Meaning All Its Own: Movement Analysis in Dance Research’, in Fraleigh, S.H. and Hanstein, P. (eds.)
  5. Researching Dance: Evolving Modes of Enquiry. London, Dance Books, pp. 283 – 286; 289 – 308. (2015).
  6. Gender Identity: Definitions, Development of Gender Identity – Usual Patterns, Development of Gender Identity – Unusual Patterns. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Jan. 2020].
  7. Golucke, K.J., 2015. Transcending Conventions: A Closer Look at the Effects of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. pp. 2 – 8.
  8. Macaulay, A. (1999). Matthew Bourne and his adventures in motion pictures. London: Faber and Faber. pp. 197.
  9. Tims, A. (2013). How we made Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 2 Jan. 2020].
  10. YouTube. (2013). Swan Lake – Pas De Deux (Cooper & Ambler). [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Dec. 2019].

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