Matthew Bourne’s ‘Swan Lake’

Matthew Bourne's SWAN LAKE. Photo: Bill Cooper

Some one once dubbed Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake the “all male Swan Lake,” and the moniker has stuck, despite the fact that the second person on stage is a woman. Yes, there is a male ensemble in place of the traditional female corps de ballet, but so many things about this production are topsy- turvy with respect to the original ballet that it’s reductive to simply call this the all-male Swan Lake.

Originally created in 1995, Bourne’s Swan Lake had an extraordinarily successful run on Broadway in 1998, racking up three TONY Awards. The show is now back in New York, this time at City Center, and it seems like a smart programming choice for this long-time dance venue: Bourne has a strong base with dance audiences, but he also pulls from a more mainstream, Broadway oriented crowd (he choreographed the family-friendly Mary Poppins).

Bourne’s Swan Lake falls into the dance-theater category, meaning the dance really tells the story. There’s a lot of serious, high-caliber dancing, with movement best described as being in the ballet-derived contemporary vein, and it’s a highly polished theatrical production. In this drastic reinterpretation, set in1960s Britain, the Prince is caught up in an unhappy life of pomp and circumstance, complicated by a fraught relationship with his frosty mother. His suicide attempt is foiled by a phalanx of male swans that emerges from a public lake. These swans are precisely the kind you aren’t supposed to approach: they hiss, peck, snap, and don’t so much flutter their wings as aggressively beat them. They are a gloriously masculine flock with a distinctly dark, menacing edge, and it’s ambiguous as to whether the Prince imagines or actually has this encounter—he’s a little mentally troubled. He’s drawn to one swan in particular, and when a black-leather clad stranger dripping with sex appeal attends the royal ball the next night, he thinks he recognizes his swan. Events rapidly spiral downwards and the ending here is no happier than in the traditional ballet, but it’s a lot more satisfying in its narrative arc (no jumping off a cliff to tie up loose ends).

Bourne has discovered so many possibilities with his Swan Lake that I wonder why the old warhorse ballets are not more regularly reinterpreted for our current day and age? Shakespeare’s plays and other standards of the western repertoire are routinely staged in modern dress, with directorial liberties understood—and even celebrated—as the artistic mark of the creative team. But in the dance world, you are much more likely to find a staid restaging of Swan Lake—usually one that trumpets its faithfulness to Russian choreographer Marius Petipa’s original—than one that recasts it in an era other than the generic fairytale past. There is a lot of power and basic plot structure in the themes of the old ballets, the music is generally damn good, and from a pragmatic perspective, these ballets seem to have commercial possibilities. So why not give revamping one a try? Bourne is working on a Cinderella set in WWII England—no doubt it will be imaginative but a touch predictable, thoroughly enjoyable, and a box office smash.

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