Mathew Bourne's Swan Lake

September 26, 1999

Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake

Adventures in Motion Pictures
Neil Simon Theatre

New York City, New York

September 26, 1998-January 24, 1999

Reviewed by Gus Solomons jr

Who would have guessed? Swan Lake is knocking ’em dead on Broadway. England’s Matthew Bourne has updated and revised the ultimate fairy-tale ballet with state-of-the-art production: design by Lez Brotherston, lighting by Rick Fisher, and Tchaikovsky’s score orchestrated by David Cullen. And Cameron Mackintosh and Adventures in Motion Pictures, Bourne’s modern dance company, are the producers. He’s renovated the Queen (Fiona Chadwick) into a glamorous, Dior-clad monarch with a romantic bent for young men, who keeps her son, the Prince (Ben Wright), tied to her apron strings. The Prince’s Girlfriend (Emily Piercy), crass but sexy, is in cahoots with the villainous Private Secretary (Barry Atkinson) for nefarious reasons never made quite clear. The Prince is an amiable fellow who has erotic dreams about swans and an Oedipal dependence on his Queen mom.

Led by the Swan (big, powerful Adam Cooper), fourteen males, bare-chested and barefoot in feathered pedal pushers, are like the actual birds: Mean and dangerous, they strike out with powerful legs and peck menacingly. Were the Prince not so taken with them, he’d surely flee in terror from their onslaught. Bourne’s movement cleverly conveys the swans’ feral nature and pulses with male energy. Throughout the ballet, arch humor, ambiguous sexuality, and accomplished theatricality keep us enthralled.

It hardly matters that the climax has some blurry dramaturgy. Why does the Prince try to kill the presumptive object of his affection, the Black Swan (Cooper in black leather), just because he’s flirting with a bevy of foreign princesses at the palace ball? Why does the Private Secretary shoot at the Prince, killing the Girlfriend instead? And is that eerily lit asylum scene just cover for the final set change?

The duets between the Prince and the Swan establish a provocatively ambiguous gay relationship. And an incestuous pas de deux between the Prince and his mother is stunning and twisted. Bourne peppers his choreography with sly quotes from Hollywood movie musicals and the original Ivanov choreography. The adoring crowd outside the palace recalls the Paris hustle-bustle of Gene Kelly’s An American in Paris ballet, and the quartet of cygnets is composed of four small men leaping in playful canons. Of course this Lake is a hit. It’s got great dancing, spectacular production, controversial sex–everything Broadway audiences love–and no garbled lyrics to misunderstand.