The Swan Room. It sounds like an ornate restaurant in an upmarket hotel, where elegant ladies take afternoon tea.

But not when it refers to a makeshift dressing room for the male dancers in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake.

Then it’s probably the most masculine place you can find. You can almost smell the testosterone as 14 lithe young men are squashed together in the wings at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London, methodically applying make-up.

They have just two minutes to transform themselves into swans by putting on their swan legs, covering their bodies with white paint and applying black eyeshadow and a diamond shape on their foreheads to represent the swan’s beak.

This is a Swan Lake like no other. Instead of rows of ballerinas gliding across the stage, all the swans are played by men.

Bourne’s production is coming to the Birmingham Hippodrome next week. For the first time, it is playing for two weeks instead of one to cope with the demand for tickets. Most other venues on the tour get it for less than a week.

Bourne himself describes the Hippodrome as “one of the most important dance venues in the country”, with which he has built up a strong relationship.

The Swan Room, in which the swan ensemble stands shoulder to shoulder, is no bigger than 20ft by 10ft.

Each dancer has an identical work station, with wipes to take off previous make-up (and kitchen towels to mop up sweat), plus a photo of a dancer showing what their swan face should look like.

There’s a pencil to draw on the beak while the other water-based make-up is clearly labelled “eyes” and “face”.

“The first time we put it on, we all used the wrong make-up and it ran down our faces like we’d been crying,” says 22-year-old Andrew Monaghan, who grew up in Coventry and Birmingham.

“But we’ve got it down to a fine art now.”

There are two sponges to use to put the white paint over their bodies, with make-up artists helping them cover their backs.

This happens at the end of Act One, so they can reappear in Act Two as swans. Then in the interval they race to their dressing rooms to shower off the make-up and reappear in Act Three as royal staff in the palace.

Then it’s back to the Swan Room for another quick change before the emotional finale, where the swans kill the prince.

Andrew Monaghan and Jack Jones are two of six dancers who have to crawl through a tiny space to hide under the Prince’s bed, before emerging to attack him.

As Bourne has explained: “The idea of a male swan makes complete sense to me.

“The strength, the beauty, the enormous wingspan of these creatures suggests to me the musculature of a male dancer more readily than a ballerina in her white tutu.”

Behind the scenes at Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake production: Dancers Robin Gladwin and Jack Jones apply makeup in The Swan Room.
Behind the scenes at Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake production: Dancers Robin Gladwin and Jack Jones apply makeup in The Swan Room.

“The Swan Room is a bit of a squeeze, it’s quite tight in there,” admits Andrew, who learned to dance from the age of three when he went along with his older sister to the Three Spires Dance School.

Then he moved to south Yardley in Birmingham and was a junior associate with the Birmingham Royal Ballet. He starred as Fritz, Clara’s elder brother, in The Nutcracker when he was 10 in 2001.

His mother, Julia Monaghan, was a methodist vicar near Solihull.

Andrew plays swan number seven and swan nine, plus he also covers the role of the Prince. Due to injury he has performed the role several times.

“I’m very lucky that this is my first job. I can’t wait to come back to the Hippodrome, it’s the theatre where I grew up watching shows. The first thing I saw as a little lad was The Nutcracker, as we went every Christmas.

“On matinee days we have four showers a day to get rid of the swan make-up. It’s a very physical show, it takes a lot out of you but it’s so rewarding.

“It’s rare to find a show that’s so good for so many guys.

“We end on an emotional high and it takes a while to wind down from being so angry. We are drained.”

Carrie Johnson is quite happy to let the boys take the spotlight in this production.

Her first job at 18 was with Birmingham Royal Ballet, where she was one of the swans in the traditional production of Swan Lake.

Now 27, she is playing the Prince’s girlfriend.

“I don’t feel at all overshadowed by the men playing the swans,” she insists.

“In this production, the women have less to do but we are featured more – we stick out whereas the male swans all look alike.

“And I don’t miss the cramping and the pain of being a swan!”

The 14 swans are broken down into four cygnets, six medium swans and four big swans.

Robin Gladwin, 32, is small enough to play one of the cygnets.

Born in Solihull, he started dancing in Sutton Coldfield at five and three years later joined BRB, where the Tudor Grange pupil starred in The Nutcracker for three years.

Their swan legs, as their costume is technically known, look like feathers from a distance but as they have to be constantly washed, that would be impractical.

They need a material that could be thrown in a washing machine, so two inch wide strips of silk chiffon are sewn together. Each leg contains 35 metres of fabric.


Backstage I find Rosie Blackshaw, deputy head of wardrobe, sewing more strips on to a pair of legs.

There are more than 500 pieces of costume for the 40-strong cast. They all have Lycra panels in the sides to allow for movement.

“We always have to have spares on hand,” says head of wardrobe Suzanne Runciman. “So we have 26 pairs of swan legs for 14 dancers.

“The swan outfits are the most iconic thing about the production, but they are relatively easy to look after. The hardest is probably the Queen’s red dress, with satin, beading, crystals and a huge underskirt. That takes a beating because the Queen really gets thrown around and goes flying over tables when she dances in the nightclub.”

Waiting in the wings for the show to start, I notice a lamppost by a park bench with a sign saying Do Not Feed The Swans.

Dressers are lining up to help with hasty changes of costumes.

It feels like a real Billy Elliot moment, as both the film and musical end with a grown-up Billy waiting in the wings, ready to go on stage to dance in Swan Lake.

Ironically, the current Prince is played by Liam Mower, who, when 12 years of age, was the original Billy Elliot in the West End.

Audiences may perhaps believe that the dancers show up half an hour before the show starts, but they work much longer hours.

A typical day for Jack Jones, aged 27 from Cheltenham, starts at 1.30pm with a compulsory company class so everyone warms up properly – or 11.30am on a gruelling day with both a matinee and an evening performance.

Most days that’s followed by a rehearsal, to bring new cast members up to speed. And injuries mean dancers have to swap roles and learn new parts.

At 5.30pm they have a break and tonight Jack eats a chicken pie with broccoli and an apple and celery smoothie.

He will also eat again when the show ends as he is “famished”, having expended so many calories.

At around 6.30pm he starts doing warm-up stretches on the stage. We can hear the audience coming into the auditorium, oblivious of what is happening on the other side of the cloth with the iconic flying swan image.

At 7.10pm Jack goes to his dressing room to put on his first outfit, a black suit with white gloves as a member of the Royal household, and his basic make-up of foundation, eye liner and eyebrow pencil.

Jack has been with Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures company for five years. This is his second tour of Swan Lake. He has also appeared in Edward Scissorhands and Lord of the Flies.

Behind the scenes at Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake production: Props from the show.
Behind the scenes at Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake production: Props from the show.

As a boy he worked with BRB and, like several of his fellow swans, starred in The Nutcracker.

He was due to go on tour with The Snow Queen when he was nine but managed to break his arm falling down two stairs just before the dress rehearsal.

He also starred in I Was A Rat at the Birmingham Rep last year.

“It’s a privilege to be in Swan Lake,” he says.

“Usually I play two medium swans but today I’m being a cygnet. I’m quite tall but also skinny so I can get away with it.

“There have been a few injuries and they’ve run out of cygnets. I had to go on last week having learned the part just that morning.

“I always warm up on stage beforehand but the show also warms you up as you do it. With some shows you are straight into the dancing, but in the first act I am playing a servant and we just walk around mainly.

“Then in the Soho nightclub scene we get our hearts going with the groovy dancing. Tonight I’m playing a sailor, though usually I’m a pop idol loosely based on a young Cliff Richard.

“Act Two is the hardest. You can afford to be a bit wilder and go crazy with the raw emotion in Act Four, but Act Two is double the length and you have to be precise and controlled.

“There are a lot of different dance styles in Swan Lake, so you have to be versatile.

“We hardly get a break during the show but I think it’s good to keep the momentum up. I’d rather be on all the time. You always end this show feeling uber-fit.

“If anyone thinks that dancing is a cissy thing for boys to do, they should come and watch Swan Lake.”

In a bid to encourage more boys to take up dance, there will be a Curtain Raiser event at the Hippodrome on February 13.

Before the matinee and, for the first time, before the evening performance, 19 local boys will perform a five minute piece based on Swan Lake.

Working with Dominic North, a principal dancer with New Adventures, they come from Birmingham Ormiston Academy, Walsall College and Stratford-upon-Avon college.

• Swan Lake comes to Birmingham Hippodrome from February 5-15. For tickets see the Hippodrome website.