- By Ken Werther
- Photos By Johan Persson/CTG
Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake was first staged at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London in 1995 and became the longest running ballet in the history of the West End. It received its American premiere at the Ahmanson Theatre here in Los Angeles in 1997 and then went on to Broadway where it was nominated for five Tony Awards and won three (Best Choreographer and Best Director for Matthew Bourne and Best Costume Design for Lez Brotherston). The production has been seen in Europe, Russia, Australia, South Korea, Japan, Israel, and Singapore, and has collected over 30 international awards. Bourne’s rendering of Swan Lake is best known for having the traditionally female parts of the swans danced by men. It has been critically praised as, “The show that changed the dance landscape forever.” The final scene of the film Billy Elliott (2000) shows the lead character as an adult about to perform as the lead Swan in a production of Bourne’s Swan Lake. (The part is performed by Adam Cooper, the original lead Swan.) In 2012, a new cast of dancers was filmed at Sadler’s Wells in 3D. It premiered in Soho, London and then shown in various cinemas with a nationwide release. It was later released on DVD.
Composed by Pyotr Tchaikovsky in 1876, Swan Lake was first performed by the Bolshoi Ballet in 1877. It has become one of the most popular ballets performed by companies around the world. There are currently more than 20 versions available on video and countless recordings of the score from which to choose. The original Swan Lake was based on the story of Ondine, a German myth that was adapted by Hans Christian Anderson for his story The Little Mermaid. Ondine was a beautiful and immortal water nymph, but if she fell in love with a mortal and bore his child she would lose her immortality. She indeed falls in love with and marries a dashing knight as he pledges unfailing love and faithfulness to her with his every waking breath. Ondine gives birth to a son and from that moment on she begins to age. As her beauty fades, Lawrence loses interest in her. When she finds her husband in the arms of another woman, she curses him such that he would have breath so long as he remained awake but if he ever fell asleep, his breath would be taken from him and he would die.
Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake radically reinterprets the myth. The focus of the ballet is turned away from the Ondine character to the man — the Prince. It is he who struggles against repression and hopes for liberty, and who needs love to make him safe. In addition, it is not the mortal man who is unfaithful to the immortal nymph. Rather, it is the Swan who expresses love for the Prince, betrays him, and finally returns to him. As in the Ondine myth, however, the sin of betrayal cannot be expiated except in death. Much has been made of Bourne’s decision to cast men as the swans. The original ballet is a standard in the European tradition of romanticized female–male love. The swan princess Odette is portrayed as powerless but lovely in accordance with conventional gender roles, and her hero is portrayed as a hunter who alone has the power to save her. Having a man in the role of lead Swan suggests that the Prince’s struggle has repressed gay love at its core and changes the realm of the plot from magical to psychological. The fierce, bird-like choreography given to the swan corps re-interprets the archetype of the swan as a pretty, feminine bird of gentle grace. However, the same central themes carry through both works. Both themes have strong ties to the life of Tchaikovsky, whose homosexuality caused a number of complications in his life.
Thrilling, audacious, witty, and emotive, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake shattered conventions, turned tradition upside down, and took the dance world by storm. Retaining the iconic elements of his original 1995 production, Bourne and award-winning designers Lez Brotherston and Paule Constable have created an exciting reimagining of that production. Arriving at the Ahmanson Theatre this month, it is not to be missed.
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