Matthew Bourne's Gay Swan Lake 


Swan Lake
Music by Peter Tchaikovsky
Directed by Matthew Bourne

Matthew Bourne’s radical interpretation and reinvention of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake won many awards when it played on Broadway in 1998, and it has toured ever since and even been called a modern-day classic by some. It is not an "all-male" Swan Lake, but Bourne’s major idea was to cast men as the swans, so that instead of dainty ballerinas floating around in tutus he had bare-chested male dancers working up a sweat and flapping their arms in a predatory, dangerous way. It’s that danger, with the threat of sexual violence underneath, that makes Bourne’s Swan Lake so exciting at its best; swans, after all, are beautiful creatures, but they are reputed to be mean-spirited, and they are also famously monogamous, which adds a touch of romance. In the new production of Bourne’s Swan Lake at City Center (through November 7), these male swans are as alarming as ever —even more so, in fact —and the spectacular Richard Winsor, who dances the lead swan, emphasizes the animal nature of his character at every turn; all the other male dancers who play the swans follow suit. Bourne is getting at the scary part of male sexuality, the testosterone that can lead to great sex but also to untrammeled and hostile physical aggression.

This has been called the "gay Swan Lake," and it is, for the main love story is between the unhappy Prince (Dominic North) and Winsor’s swan. Bourne has said that when they originally did his version there were always lots of straight male walkouts during the intimate dance the two share together, yet this production has won over the general public, and I think that’s because the idea of the lead Swan as an animal is so convincing, so that The Prince is dancing, basically, with an animal, not another man. Trickily, this animal idea then bounces back on us because it relates directly to sex; how often have we heard, "He was an animal in bed." As I watched this production, I kept looking at the reactions of an elderly lady in front of me; she seemed pleased with things in the first act, for practically everyone knows Tchaikovsky’s music at this point, and then she looked rather confused by the male swans, but interested, not disapproving, wanting to learn something new, maybe. This production is definitely worth seeing live; on television, different camera angles rob Bourne’s Swan Lake of its drive and immediacy, plus the sweat that starts to gleam on the male swan’s torsos as they hurl themselves around the stage and threaten to peck your eyes out.

Bourne is working-class London, and comes at his choreography from a muscular, Gene Kelly-type perspective. He has little sympathy for the Queen (Nina Goldman), or any of her royal entourage, and he portrays her as cold yet secretly lascivious, her repression making her sexuality diseased when it bursts out after periods of disuse. Likewise, the Prince’s girlfriend (Madelaine Brennan) is cartoonishly vulgar, and these two female roles could do with some layering and added depth to make the production more balanced; even a slight hint of contrasting, healthy female sexuality would do the trick. Bourne can be crass, which is the underside of his championing of the macho swans, and when he has his dancers doing a Sweet Charity-style frug to the famous score, he’s overreaching. But the main thrust, ahem, of his production remains as honestly erotic, teasing and modestly touching as ever.

(photo credit: Bill Cooper)

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