Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake Returns to New York

My friend Joan recently returned from a trip out east where she saw dance choreographer Matthew Bourne's innovative reworking of Swan Lake, back in New York City for the first time in over ten years.

I saw the show in 2006 in Minneapolis, and, like the production that Joan saw on the weekend in New York, it too had taped music rather than a live orchestra. Why do they do this? I guess it's a cost-saving measure, but I still don't like it. Apparently in New York, representatives from Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians let it be known that they didn't like it either by protesting outside the theater. Good for them.

Anyway, following are excerpts from various reviews of the revived New York production of Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake - which runs until November 7. Enjoy!


“Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake” — a painterly exploration of desire told through dance — has returned to New York for the first time since 1998, when the production played on Broadway and won three Tony Awards. On Friday night New Adventures, Mr. Bourne’s company, began a three-week run of it at City Center.

. . . Like the classical ballet, Mr. Bourne’s version involves a prince and a swan, but here both are male; his reinterpretation raises the ballet’s inherent sexiness and gives Tchaikovsky’s music new force. In this most recent incarnation it’s not merely a sensation but fairly sensational too. Over the years Mr. Bourne’s production has frequently and erroneously been described as an all-male version of the ballet. There are women as well, and it’s less a ballet than a modern-dance retelling of one. It is laced with references to ballet as well as to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the British royal family and the notion of acceptance.

. . . When Mr. Bourne is not advancing the story, the choreography for the rest of the flock can give off a whiff of generic modern dance; there is a rough power as the swans move from one side of the stage to the other, but also a repetitiveness in their leaps and turns. Their isolated poses provide more lasting intensity, recalling images of Nijinsky.

. . . [I]n the end “Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake” represents a question larger than the story itself: When is tradition necessary, and when do we break free? At the end of the film Billy Elliot, the title character is about to leap onstage, not as a prince, but as Mr. Bourne’s swan. It’s an unexpected ending: in that moment we know that Billy Elliot, like Mr. Bourne, hasn’t taken the traditional road, but given tradition a push.

– Gia Kourlas
Prince’s Fate, Entwined with Desire
New York Times
October 17, 2010

After seeing Bourne’s Swan Lake, which is back for a limited run at the New York City Center (until Nov. 7) it’s hard not to think of Billy Elliot, which has since gone on to be come a hit musical. In a way, Bourne’s ballet made the idea of a Billy Elliot possible: a boy with no background in “high art” and with a difficult life and no cultural aspirations, embracing the expressive potential of classical ballet. A boy like that would have trouble imagining himself as Albrecht in Giselle or James from La Sylphide, in love with a forest sprite. But a vigorous, decidedly masculine, excitingly wild male swan? Why not? In fact, watching the electrifying swarm of swans onstage at the City Center, I felt I was seeing a flock of Billy Elliots, muscular English lads from Berkshire, and Kent, and Herfordshire, which, in fact, is what they are. In a moment I could see that with this ballet, and this production, Bourne made becoming a ballet dancer seem desirable, sexy, attainable.

. . . Bourne’s swans are magnificent—bare-chested, muscular, with powerful haunches (enlarged by their bulky, feathery gaucho-pants), fierce eyes accentuated by a black triangle-shaped marking on the forehead, and enormous wingspans. They are frightening and sexually enticing all at once, embodying the very qualities that made Nijinsky famous: the manly, powerful lower body, capable of enormous strength, combined with an expressive, open torso, exotic features, and beautiful, but also powerful, arms. Their default pose is a variation on the port-de-bras of Petipa’s swans, but rendered both more languid and more exotic: one forearm rests on the head, with the elbow forming a sharp angle in front of the face, and the other arm is extended to the side and back. It is a pose that evokes a state of mind: challenging and exposed, alluring and strange all at once.

And how they dance! They slash through space, leap, slice the air with their wing-like arms and create maelstroms with their turns, which are generally executed with one leg lifted and bent behind them. The spiraling attitude and grand jeté, also in attitude, are their most common form of locomotion; nothing is ever still or straight, everything is always in motion, reaching, flying, bursting forth.

– Marina Harss
For the Love of a Swan: Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake Returns to New York
The Faster Times
October 17, 2010

Mr. Bourne’s talent for expressing theatrical ideas through physical imagery was clearly evident in the most provocative move in his Swan Lake: a reversal of the idea, central to the ballet, of the swan as an image of femininity. Instead he provided a corps de ballet of bare-chested, aggressive, sexually alluring male swans, and a repressed, sensitive-soul prince who falls in love with their leader.

“I loved the music and the way it’s written to tell a story,” he said. “I started to imagine the story of a prince who couldn’t be who he wanted to be. And I liked the idea of male swans — free, beautiful, wild — all the things a male royal person cannot be.”

That the relationship between the prince and the swan (and his alter-ego, the Stranger, a counterpart to the evil Odile in the original ballet) was frequently read as a homosexual one amplified the clamor around the production.

“There is certainly a gay aspect to the piece, but I thought it was more than that, a more universal story,” Mr. Bourne said, adding that audience attitudes have also changed since early walkouts during the male pas de deux 15 years ago.

But the work’s evocation of sexual and social politics through a contemporary royal family (this was, after all, the era of Diana-Charles-Camilla-Fergie), extended well beyond issues of homosexuality, offering audiences an accessible vision of the tussle between individualism and duty, the cult of celebrity and the need for love in a way that few contemporary dance works had managed.

– Roslyn Sulcas
All the Swans at This Lake Are Male
New York Times
October 10, 2010

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake
Reclaiming the Queer Artistic Heritage
The Dancer and the Dance
The Premise of All Forms of Dance

Images 1-2: Richard Winsor as the Swan and Dominic North as the Prince performing at City Center. (Andrea Mohin / New York Times.)
Image 3: Matthew Bourne. (Jennifer S. Altmann / New York Times.)
Image 4: Richard Winsor. (Photographer unknown.)

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