Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake
New York City Center
New York, New York
October 27, 2010
Copyright 2010 by Michael Popkin
Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake walks a fine line between successful dance and popular entertainment. Put together with Broadway pizzazz and skill, it has enough dance interest – spread over the narrative scenes in Act One and the Swan dances in Acts Three and Four – to carry the evening as a whole and climaxes in Act Four with a fitting coup de theatre. It’s true that Bourne’s re-imagining of the plot as the story of a closet case gay prince who goes insane after falling in love with a male swan coarsens the texture and theme of the work; in particular, the conflict between erotic and romantic love that drives the original is lost in a version where the prince neither vows to save the Swan nor breaks the vow by lusting after the Swan’s double. But all the same, the role of the Swan is a strong one, and got a performance from Richard Winsor the night I saw it that made me glad I saw the show.
Winsor – a young dancer of middle height with both ballet and dramatic training – has a quality that producers yearn for: the star power to carry an evening at the theater nearly by himself. In this production we don’t really care emotionally about the fate of the Swan anyway – he’s more a force of nature than a character in fact - nevertheless it’s the strength of his dancing (and that of his cohort of swan companions) that carries the evening as a whole, a strength that is completely male. The strongest element of Bourne’s production is the way he embodies the swans, not as ballet Trocadero figures – traditional female swans in drag - but as entirely masculine individuals: aggressive, muscular, and even frightening (with the lead Swan much given to grabbing the back of the prince’s neck and pushing him around). There’s no dramatic conflict in the Swan; he has only to appear and awaken the prince’s latent homo-erotic character, and then to come on to the prince's mother (the Queen) to drive the play to its denouement. Winsor’s personal beauty, compelling presence, and tightly wrapped, attitude laden and muscular dance technique were more than adequate for this task.
That there is very little lyricism in this play is a fault for those who, like me, love the original and miss the pathos in the great love duets in both of Ivanov's white acts. The soaring climaxes in the score, however, as well as the melodramatic action at the conclusion of both of those acts allows Bourne to slip around this roadblock from the sentimental point of view; and it also has to be remembered that most of the audience is not comparing what they see with the Petipa - Ivanov original. Bourne's consistent lack of narrative clarity in the second half of the ballet is a more serious flaw. The ball scene ends when the prince pulls a pistol after his mother (the Queen) has interacted sexually with the Swan/Stranger; the Stranger grabs the gun and shots ring out; but it all happens too fast; you can’t really tell what happens. Likewise in the bedroom scene that ends the ballet, the death of the Swan at the hands of his swan cohort (determined to keep him apart from the prince?) and the possible apotheosis of the lovers in a mirror over the bed is less than clear – again we never completely know what has actually happened, much less why it has happened. That this doesn’t really matter to the audience tells you that the success of this work does not depend on details of this sort, but on another order of experience in the theater entirely.
Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake is in its final weekend at New York City Center
Photos of Richard Winsor as the Swan/Stranger in Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake copyright Bill Cooper, courtesy of Matthew Bourne's New Adventures Production