Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is absolutely breathtaking. Adapted from the iconic ballet by Tchaikovsky, Bourne’s Swan Lake reinterprets the traditional legend of an ill-fated prince who falls in love with a beautiful princess who has been cursed to live as a swan, transporting us to a surreal dream, in a near Brechtian tale of love and betrayal.
On Lez Brotherson’s spectacular oversize sets at New York City Center, The Prince (James Lovell) sleeps in a bed the size of a car, as maids and valets, in chic black satin bouffant dresses and uniforms wait on him hand and foot. Still a bit of a baby, spoiled and bored, he goes out on the town with the “in” crowd, to an opera and, later, to a seedy nightclub. The Prince eventually escapes to a lakeside park, where he meets the Swan (Matthew Ball). They dance among the oversize pillars of the colonnade, under an hypnotic moon glowing through white tree branches. With his athletic prowess, perfect technique and fluid port de bras, Matthew Ball is extraordinary. As the enigmatic Swan he dances with masculine grace, exquisite arabesque and long arms that move as if carving a path through cool butter. In a tender pas de deux with the Prince he lifts Lovell effortlessly as the two spin in their own private world. For his part, Lovell portrays the Prince with a sweetness and passion that break your heart.
In the abandon of the moonlit night, the swans dance exuberantly, with incredible strength and stamina. Bourne builds rhythms and patterns as the tide of dancers ebbs and flows. This is not a caricatured role reversal, with men in pointe shoes, fluttering in imitation of female dancers. Barefoot, clad in feather breeches they are more Nijinsky than Pavlova. This choreography celebrates the swans as men. They get to be what they are, with every shake of the leg. Bourne has taken care with the female roles as well. From the adorable girlfriend (Katrina Lyndon) to the glamorous queen (Nicole Kabera) to the various guests at the ball, the women in this ballet are full characters, with costumes to match. From fabulous sparkled jumpsuit to piquant short sequined baby doll number to dazzling red ball gown, it’s all so visually delicious.
In Act III, striding into the palace for the Royal Ball, transformed from Swan to devilish Stranger, Ball again takes command of the stage, seducing everyone in sight (including the audience.) He is Swan as sexy beast. The Prince grows jealous as the Stranger taunts him by flirting with the women. As the ballet builds to a dramatic, heart-stopping finale, Bourne continues to reveal levels of nuance and allegory, in storytelling that operates at the highest level and yet remains very accessible.
Bourne plays with the intrigue of both the Swan and the Prince being men. However, this does not feel as ‘simple’ as a discovery of same sex love. It is more universal, exploring the price anyone might have to pay for daring to seek happiness. Swan Lake bursts with passion, mystery and madness, barely containable by the mere confines of a theater. Buy your tickets before they sell out.
(Photo by Johan Persson)