Dance Review: Swan King

By Debra Cash

From the hype, you’d think that ten years ago British choreographer/director Matthew Bourne was the first person to develop a post-Freudian “Swan Lake” or cross-dress a ballet production, and you’d be wrong. You’d be right, however, to call Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake” a phenomenon.

In 1996-97 the work became the longest running full-length dance work in the history of London theatre with 120 performances. After winning the big theatre prizes in England (Olivier) and the States (Tony) it’s been on the boards in some country or other ever since and seen as the culmination of young Billy Elliot’s ballet aspirations in Stephen Daldry’s 2000 film. Figure skater Johnny Weir’s outre short program to Saint-Saens “Dying Swan” music probably owes its International Skating Union acceptability to Bourne’s mainstream popularity.

Boston audiences clutching opening night tickets for last Thursday’s performances had to work a little harder than usual to catch the show. At the 7:30 curtain time, a nervous looking stage manager came out onto the proscenium apron and begged our patience with “technical difficulties” backstage. At 8:15, the show was cancelled and the entire house was sent home. Apparently, the Colonial Theatre’s old-fashioned tent ropes and sandbagging were not suspending a major piece of the set properly. Safety, for the stage hands and dancers, was given priority. It can’t have been an easy or inexpensive decision to cancel. Technical failures may be the least of the producer’s problems: as I write this, the tour that was to have included Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia and Toronto as been scrapped, a victim to sluggish ticket sales.

In Boston, where the production had never been presented, “Swan Lake” was a hot enough ticket that many audience members did decide to exchange their tickets for another show over the weekend.

The draw was male swans. Bourne replaces the porcelain shoulders of delicate ballerinas in classical tutus with hairy male chests glistening with sweat above fringed “feathered” haunches, costumes (and sets) exquisitely imagined by Lez Brotherston. The sorrowing enchanted Swan Queen surrounded by her maidens becomes the tantalizing image of sexually loaded wildness that exists only in the prince’s mind. Bourne has said that he was always interested in the acting style of silent movies (and cinematic images—from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to Visconti — are as embedded in his choreographic decisions as ballet references) but in “Swan Lake” what’s fascinating is how he allows the prince’s inner life to capsize. He’s not in a fairy tale, exactly: his experience is more like what happens when you get caught up in watching a film and can’t exactly remember the rest of your life until you come blinking out of the dark theatre.

Bourne’s homoerotic vision is not campy. Part of the problem with its publicity is that it implies “Swan Lake” is is a kind of full-length Les Ballets Trocadero de Monte Carlo parody in drag with ballerinas called Russified things like “Ida Nevasayneva.” It’s got very funny bits, of course, especially the first act full of jokes about the current royal family and its infantilized prince, a kind of pre-Diana Prince Charles, who is so stage-managed that an attendant sprays the deodorant under his armpits. The “Moth Ballet” featuring a logger in lederhosen and a suffering moth — interrupted by the prince’s vulgar girlfriend taking a call on her cell phone – is hilarious.

But in his “Swan Lake” Bourne is mostly interested in the intertwining of identity and desire and he works it through symbol by symbol, scene by scene. With a party-girl Queen of a mother (Saranne Curtin), and a girlfriend (Leigh Daniels) who’s been paid off by the manipulative Private Secretary (Alan Mosley), he is profoundly confused about his need for affection and his need for sex. (Raise your hand if you’ve ever known –or been—someone who’s made a similar mistake.) The Prince wants to be as wild and unfettered—as butch –as the Swan. Sex and male beauty are literally destabilizing.

Not only can the Swan Lake libretto accommodate that switch, Bourne knows his ballet and honors its conventions. The ropes that keep the proles and autograph seekers along the red carpet at bay work like the garlands in Petipa’s classics, and although no production of the traditional “Swan Lake” has the exact same steps, he quotes the traditional choreography liberally.

At the funny end of the spectrum are Odile’s fouette turns transported to the Moth Ballet; at the chilling end, the way a group of nurses masked with the duplicated face of the prince’s mother stand at the foot of the prince’s bed with their arms crossed and their heads cocked sideways like the classic Little Swans. There are other quotes too: Bourne is less a Swan himself than a pop culture magpie. The military regiment and the waiters at the ball could be high-stepping through “Hello, Dolly!”

The Swans enticing the prince to his truth are the heart of Bourne’s conception. These hunky creature have their motifs—arms draped across their heads, wincing neck rolls – and Bourne elaborates on them well if not surprisingly once each gesture has been introduced. As often as not, he retains Petipa/Ivanov’s classical formations so that, for instance, there are moments when the swans line up on either side of the stage, creating a space for the Prince’s tentative explorations. I imagine the London and Broadway casts were a more technically consistent ensemble, but big fowl don’t have to look perfect and they hissed and leaped vigorously.

Alan Vincent’s Swan/Stranger came to the tour from close to a decade of performing in Bourne’s works for his company, Adventures in Motion Pictures, and everything he did had confidence if not too much calculation. His Stranger in black leather pants was very George Clooney, his mesmerizing tango full of aggression. Simon Wakefield’s Prince teetered on musical comedy emoting and gesturing, but ultimately I believed his despair and madness, and how the Swan could overwhelm a life he had little investment in maintaining.

Cut short? The current tour may be scuttled, but “Matthew Bourne’s
Swan Lake” lasts in the imagination.

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