We catch up with the principal dancer in the critically acclaimed Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, Chris Trenfield, as the company arrives in Dublin. Read on to see how the life of male ballet dancer ends up encompassing cricket, human rights, disco dancing and wedding plans.
Chris Trenfield first started disco dancing aged five.
“I was actually going disco dancing from the age of five until about nine. I gave up dancing altogether when I was about nine. And then I played football for a couple of years, and cricket as well. I played a lot of cricket. Then I just sort of missed it and went back dancing when I was twelve and didn’t start ballet until I was 16.” An unusual late bloomer for such an established star Chris initially never gave a thought to a career in ballet, wanting to do more musical theatre and singing. “That’s what I was after when I was a kid. I loved it. Saturday Night Fever and West Side Story, which was the first musical I did out of college.” The turnaround occurred during his teenage years when he was attending summer schools in the Laine Theatre Arts school in Surrey – where he eventually ended up studying – and dreaming of West End numbers. “The dance teachers there said you have the right sort of physique for ballet dancing, you should really give that a go. So I did. I followed their advice. Although it wasn’t what I wanted to do it was where I ended up.”
Touring since 2009 with the company, it was four years ago as an understudy that Chris got his big break. “I covered the part of the swan and one of the lads that I covered hurt his back and that’s how I got my opportunity to go on.”
Ballet dancers are constantly at risk of injury. The company has a physio on tour because of the physical demands placed on the dancers. “She’s got her work cut out. Once we’re actually on the road it should be a bit easier because we’ll be getting two days off.” And how does a swan spend his downtime? Clue: They don’t seem to do lounging like us plebs. “I’m not on this evening but I’m actually going to do a work out,” Chris admits. “When you do repetitive shows your body develops more in certain areas. It’s like a balancing act. You’ve got to then work the opposite leg and things like that so you’re not imbalanced. That is when injuries can occur – when you get particularly tight on one side.”
The lead part in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is basically claiming a prime position in the dancehall of fame. When it premiered in 1995 it took cultural circles by storm. Totally unique Bourne took Tchaikovsky’s old reliable and plucked it from politeness. The female corps became an army of male dances, all musclar bare chests and feathered trousers. The choreography became guttural and modern. Bourne’s decision to upend the gender roles of the play saw many classifying it as gay version of the classic and it was surprisingly controversial. Trenfield doesn’t feel intimidated by this history. “I’ve never seen the original Swan Lake, the original classical version. It is something everybody knows and loves. They know what they’re going to see. I think people have come to expect something different from Matthew Bourne by now. (His Swan Lake) was made 25 years ago. It was definitely a shock back then and people were taken aback – men don’t sing and dance with other like that, all that male love. I think that was more of an issue when it first came out now it’s actually looked over and I think is more about the prince’s desire to be free. I think the production is a lot more current now, especially with what is happening in Russia at the moment as well.” This Swan Lake always seems to have currency. “The last time we did it there was a lot of trouble out in America, people getting beaten up because of their sexuality.” This was during the suicides that inspired the It Gets Better slogan and wave of videos of support from President Obama and Dan Savage, amongst others. “We had a lot of feedback from Americans who came to see us. I think it does raise awareness and helps a lot of people who are in difficult situations.”
Chris is recently engaged – proposing on New Year’s Eve and all – to a fellow dancer. Her most recent job has been an overtly political gig with Gay Mountain a Channel 4 produced viral video to mark the Sochi Winter Olympics where a Soviet town hall is overtaken by feathers, sequins and leotards. Ostensibly a good luck message to the athletes, the video is also a flamboyant critique of Russia’s shocking stance on human rights for LGBT people. The couple has just set a date for the end of August next year. They haven’t decided on their first dance yet.
Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake runs in the Bord Gáis theatre from February 25th until March 1st. For more details about Swan Lake and to book tickets see here.
Jeanne Sutton @jeannedesutun