Richard Winsor :: ’sexiest man in dance’ takes on 3D ’Swan Lake’

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Monday March 19, 2012

One of the added pleasures to "Black Swan," Darren Aronosky's trippy look into madness and ballet, was how audiences were thrilled by "Swan Lake," the Tchaikovsky ballet that is both danced in the film and whose dark story is illuminated in its plot.

Not that "Swan Lake" needs the attention: still one of the most-performed classical ballets in the world, it received a major reinterpretation when British choreographer Matthew Bourne turned to it in 1995 for a radical interpretation that replaced the traditional use of female dancers as the swans with men. His change turned heads and helped make this production a sensation. It went on to win London's prestigious Olivier Award for best Dance Production in 1996 and three Tony Awards in 1999 for Best Choreography, Costumes and Direction of a Musical - a coup for a ballet production. Bourne's production received further validation when it was revived in 2009, first in London, then across the UK before a US tour that brought them back to New York.

Playing the Swan in that production was Richard Winsor, who joined Bourne's company in 2001. It wasn't his first major role with the company - he had already premiered two starring roles, those of Edward Scissorhands and Dorian Gray, both new ballets Bourne created from well-known fantasy works. Yet taking the role of the Swan was a challenge, not the least of which because he was taking a role that dancer Adam Cooper first played in 1995, a performance preserved in a video of that landmark production.

A restless swan

Winsor showed, though, he was up to the challenge. "Mr. Winsor is a darting, restless swan, sweeping fiercely through the music or quieting his body to instill the notes with foreboding presence," wrote dance critic Gia Kourlas reviewing the 2010 production in the New York Times. "He creates tension in the smallest of moments: when he bends over and arches into a head roll, the movement takes on a dangerous edge. In their pas de deux he and Mr. North (Dominic North who plays the Prince) play with weight, parting and connecting until the swan cradles the prince."

Now audiences throughout the world will have an opportunity to thrill to Winsor's performance when Fathom Entertainment brings Bourne's ballet to movie theaters on March 20, 2012 for a single showing of a filmed version of the ballet shot in 3D shot a year ago at London's Sadler Welles' Theater over two days.

The 28-year old Winsor may turn out to be the break-out star from Bourne's company, having pursued acting jobs in addition to his dancing assignments. In England he's best-known for playing Father Francis in the long-running British soap opera "Hollyoaks;" nor is this "Swan Lake" his venture into 3D on film, having starred in the British dance film "StreetDance 3D." For that and for his work with Bourne, he was named the "sexiest dancer in the world" by Elle magazine. That happened when he was touring with Bourne's company, but was a good starting point for a Q&A EDGE had with Winsor last week to promote the upcoming Fathom event.

Fitting in

EDGE: What was it like to be called "the sexiest dancer in the world?"

Richard Winsor: How did I like it? I don't exactly know how I felt about it. When they said that, I was on tour with one of Matthew's show. So I wasn't really out in the world at that moment. I was with the company, so they gave me a lot of friendly ribbing. But I guess it was quite a big deal. I really didn't think about it much. It didn't make me have a big head. It was more: 'Wow. Thank you guys.' And I moved on.

EDGE: How did playing the Swan in this production come about?

Richard Winsor: I played it for about six months, really. From Christmas 2009-2010, we did it at Sadler Welles. And then we went into a UK tour, and to Japan and Korea - so it was on and off for the 2010 year. That October and November we toured some US cities and went to Broadway. But we did other things between this, so it wasn't just doing "Swan Lake" all the time. Then last year we went back to it and filmed it. Very quickly - we filmed it over two days in March, 2011.

EDGE: When did you join Matthew Bourne's company?

Richard Winsor: I was on stage in my third year at school (London's Central School of Ballet) and we were doing this small company tour as part of the training. Matthew came to see one of the performances. I had always wanted to dance with his company having seen "Swan Lake" my first year in college. So they asked me if I wanted to come and do a class. And they had a few positions open for a tour of "Car Man" in America. I went to the class and Matthew asked me if I wanted to join the company. He saw a future for me in the company. But for a 19 year old, I thought, "well, do they really like me? How can I fit into this company?"

"Play Without Words" (Bourne's dance interpretation of the British film "The Servant") was the first new work by Matthew I worked on. I was 20 when I first started working on the piece, and it was quite a challenge. I was dancing with a company that was 8 or 9 years older than me. It was really quite a big deal. That was my first experience creating a role with Matthew. Four of five years later, I started creating new roles, which made me very happy - being able to get into the mindset of a very complex characters like Edward Scissorhands, Dorian Gray and now the Swan.

Black Swan?

EDGE: What makes dancing the Swan so special?

Richard Winsor: To begin with, it has been done in the past by a lot of fantastic dancers, but Matthew's treatment is radically different. He treats the Swan as if he is an animal -- a beast, and how that beast would move dictates my movement. He creates a dangerous, aggressive character. One of the reasons Matthew chose men to play the swans is to get that masculine, beast-like quality to come through. And then the psychological factor -- with the Dark Stranger (the Black Swan from the original ballet) comes in later on. I want to play them as two sides of the Prince's personality.

(Note: as in other versions of the ballet, the Prince is confronted by two versions of the Swan, the first, in a public park, where he dances with the Swan; the second, represented by a sexy, leather-clad Dark Stranger out to seduce his mother, the Queen. In the ballet's climatic scene, he confronts the Dark Stranger before devolving into madness.)

One side is the Swan, who is for hope and peace and freedom, and a way out of the shackles of his royal life. He sees the Swan as this beacon of hope; and then there's the darker side -- this stranger coming in who is just this normal guy who may have had an affair with the queen at one point. But the Prince fantasizes that the stranger is something that he's not. He represents the darker side of the Prince's personality. At this point the Prince succumbs to schizophrenia and depression, which is what the Dark Stranger brings out in him. I represent the dark sides of the Prince's personality.

EDGE: In some ways the film "Black Swan" reflects the same story, though there it is your character that goes mad. What did you think of that film?

Richard Winsor: I really, really loved it. I came out about the same time I was performing "Swan Lake." We use music in a very different way than a classic "Swan Lake" does; and "Black Swan" used it again differently. And hearing the music, and seeing where the character was going, I could relate. And Natalie Portman was amazing as well. It connected to a time when I was connecting with the psyche and the music and the character, as she was in the movie.

Unique and solid

EDGE: What is it about this interpretation that has resonated with audiences?

Richard Winsor: Audiences relate to it because it deals with clear morals and messages that the Prince is going through. The Prince takes the audience on a journey, which doesn't happen often in dance. And there's the beauty and the power of it, and the emotion. It resonates hugely with the audience. To see it from an audience point-of-view -- you just get drawn in.

That's a big reason the film version is so successful. It has such an emotional hook. And the beauty of the dance, the style of the dance, fits so beautifully with the music. It's a new version, a different version, but a unique, solid version in its own right.

A proud moment

EDGE: Did filming in 3D present any special challenges?

Richard Winsor: Actually, what the 3D did was give us more options. It gave the director (Ross MacGibbon) more options to experiment with the shots. He's able to use the crane more to zoom in and get down to the level of the performers. I think we gained more.

And upon seeing it I think is some of the best 3D I have ever seen. The process lent itself to this kind of stage work because you feel you are on the stage, amongst the action. As if you're in amongst the performers on stage. That's what 3D delivers.

And it's been proud moment for me. It had only been on film once before - that was in 1995-1996 when Adam Cooper created the role. So to see myself in this 3D situation like this in such a famous show was really very special.

Already critics are in agreement. The London newspaper, The Telegraph, sent critic Rachel Ward to a special showing of this version last summer and she reported: "What could be better for Matthew Bourne's contemporary re-interpretation of 'Swan Lake' than for it to be showcased in the cutting-edge technology of 3D?

"The resulting performance, when viewed in 3D, is both slick and stunning...," she continued. "In fact, it's filmed at such close quarters that the viewer can hear the dancers' breathing and see every bead of sweat dripping down their muscular forms. The magnificent Richard Winsor, who plays the lead Swan/Stranger, is at times right up in the viewer's face, his sinister movements and the fluent choreography intensified by perception of depth created by 3D."

Matthew Bourne's "Swan Lake" in 3D will be shown on Tuesday, March 20, 2012 in movie theateres throughout the country. To find a theater near you, visit: the Fathom events website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].