Matthew Bourne / New Adventures
New York, New York
January 31, 2020
I tend to overuse appreciative adjectives when I describe a performance, or aspects of it, that I find particularly meritorious, but with respect to Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, all apply, and all are insufficient. If you have only one performance … of anything … to see between now and anytime in the future, see it.
I could end my review of last night’s performance here, but that would be a disservice. So bear with me if I too often overuse adjectives.
As those who’ve read my prior reviews know by now, I make it a point not to read reviews of a piece that I’ve not previously seen or to study background information in advance of the performance. I prefer to attend something new as a “typical” audience member, and with no prejudgment formed by reading other critics’ opinions. That being said, I was well aware of this production long before its performance last night. I knew that the dance, which premiered in London in 1996, was an all-male (almost) version, that it won that year’s Olivier Award, and that it had traveled the world many times over (including New York). But I’d not previously seen it. I suspect, however, that even if I’d seen it, I would not have been prepared for the magnificent performances by its cast last night (Friday), including a towering portrayal by Matthew Ball. Within minutes, I was percolating in my seat.
Aside from the performances, and subject to some concerns that I’ll indicate below, Bourne’s Swan Lake is, simply, a work of genius. It’s not so much a gay Swan Lake, though fundamentally it is, as a reimagining that reinvents the Swan Lake we know from the inside out. It’s in no way delicate or crystalline to be sure, but it’s hilarious, deadly serious, and one of the most powerful dances I can recall.
The version presented last night is a reconstruction of Bourne’s initial reimagining. I’m not aware of the “hundreds” of little changes that Bourne purportedly made since its initial run, but aside from updating the Royal Family into something more contemporary than it previously was, I suspect they’re nips and tucks rather than major surgery. [No, I haven’t watched the 2012 DVD either.] If the changes are significant, so be it. It is what it is, and to the extent it was extraordinary before, it’s probably more extraordinary now.
In sum (based on the performance – there are no scene summaries or program notes), in Bourne’s iteration the stage is first set by a filmed version of a huge, powerful swan flying freely through the air. This is no filigree swan; this is the Boeing 747 of Swans. The video yields to the live performance. A powerful, compelling Swan appears to the Prince (James Lovell) in a dream vision that rocks him to his core. He awakens in a state of shock. His mother the Queen (Nicole Kabera) then enters his bedroom, and thinking the Prince ill, places her palm over his forehead to take his temperature. Feeling none, the two, complete with an army of servants overseen by a Private Secretary (Jack Jones), prepare for the day’s Royal obligations and public spectacle. It becomes quickly apparent, however, that this Queen is not the dour aristocratic and authoritarian queen mother she appears to be in many versions of the Petipa / Ivanov original, but a thoroughly modern woman who flaunts her alluring-body in a classically immodest red dress (the simple but fabulous costumes are designed by Lez Brotherston, who also designed the equally simple but equally fabulous set) and her voracious sexual appetite to any male within viewing distance, to her son’s embarrassment. Nevertheless, we soon see that this Prince yearns for his mother’s attention and approval, which she somewhat grudgingly provides.
In the course of fulfilling his duties, the Prince meets and believes himself to be attracted to an outrageous blonde floozie (Katrina Lyndon) wearing a garishly loud red balloon dress (a fashion rage in the 90s, as I recall) who imposes herself on him to the chagrin of his mother and the Private Secretary (an updated version of the Prince’s Tutor) and finagles an invitation to the Royal’s night at the ballet. [Comparisons, presumably in the Prince’s subconscious mind, between his mother and the floozie (the character’s name is “The Girlfriend”) are indubitably purely psychological coincidences.]
Segue to the Opera House, where the Royal Family and hangers-on are seated in the Royal Box. The performance is a hilarious send-off of Romantic ballets, particularly Swan Lake (the original), but with other Romantic fantasy winged sylphs mixed in, led by an intentionally overly melodramatic “Moth Maiden” (Mari Kamata) and moth entourage, pursued by a lumbering “Nobleman” – a clueless James / Franz wannabee with an axe. The Nobleman (Alistair Beattie) eventually battles an Evil Tree Troll and his stumpy minions, until good triumphs over evil. Sort of. Throughout, there are priceless gags from the Royal Box (e.g., the Girlfriend takes a call on her cellphone). Eventually, because she’s so … common and uncultured, the Private Secretary bribes the reluctant Girlfriend to abandon her Prince.
When next we see the floozie, she’s being taken by an escort to a Bar / Strip Club, where the smitten Prince eventually finds her. Amid tourists and paparazzi, the Prince is beaten up. He proceeds to a city park, where, in despair, he pens a suicide note that he pins to a convenient signpost (that says: “Please Don’t Feed the Swans”) and prepares to go jump in a lake, when the swans, led by The Swan, appear. Following the swans’ departure, The Prince, spiritually (and sexually) awakened, tears up the suicide note and euphorically runs around the park celebrating his epiphany like a swan without its head, scaring the bejesus out of an old woman busy feeding the swans.
In Act III, the Prince is back at his castle for his birthday celebration, which featured the best pseudo Spanish Dance I’ve seen, and an Italian Dance that summarizes all the extant seduction/temptation dances into one. [The Spanish Dance was led by Katie Webb and an unidentified partner; the Italian Dance by Michaela Guibarra.] In saunters The Stranger, who seduces every female in sight (while tempting the Prince also). Following the Girlfriend’s murder by gunshot (don’t ask), the devastated Prince, who thinks The Swan betrayed him, goes mad – not Giselle-mad; just “normal” mad. In the next scene, the Prince is confined to what appears to be a padded cell, is administered shock treatment by a doctor and nurses who all look alike, and is pronounced healthy by his mother (after she again gauges his temperature with her palm). In Act IV, both The Prince and The Swan die (the latter after being plucked and torn apart by the other swans), and in a scene that combines seminal images of both the original Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet, the Queen mourns her son while he and The Swan ascend skyward, followed by a concluding filmed image of that huge free flying swan.
This synopsis shows only how different the story in Bourne’s Swan Lake is from the original. There’s far more to this Swan Lake than I’ve described, or that I’d want to include in a review. But it’s also not so different. It’s the original story, told through a looking glass – and the gags and serious commentary cannot be adequately conveyed by written description. You have to be there to appreciate it – and to be overwhelmed by the power of seeing a stage full of fiercely strong male swan in a tornado of motion. There is not a throwaway moment, not a gesture out of place, not a stone uncast, and not an argument left unsaid (including its scathing and barely camouflaged attack on “conversion therapy”).
As for Bourne’s choreography, it may not be groundbreaking and it may be in some ways repetitious, but his primary concern, beyond the message, was keeping the show moving and conveying its power, both of which goals he accomplishes. The Swan movement may at times look like a mass of swirling action with nothing distinctive about any of it, but that would miss the forest for the trees. There’s a lot there (and a flock of swans, flying or swimming, does tend to move uniformly), including noteworthy attention to detail that goes beyond the plethora of sight gags (e.g., Bourne understatedly captures the bird’s one-legged backward “kicks” that often intrude on the uniform movement). The choreography may not be cutting-edge contemporary, but it cuts to the core. And there’s even mime, though … different. The staging is honed to within an inch of being too perfect – and perhaps looks even more powerful than it would on a stage larger than City Center’s. Here, abetted by Paule Constable’s lighting, it explodes from the stage and overwhelms the senses. The Tchaikovsky score has been rearranged (sound design by Ken Hampton), but most everything appears to be there – and the pacing is so fast (the music was recorded, presumably to Bourne’s specifications) that you’d probably miss something significant if you blinked.
Rothbart’s absence (except insofar as he’s reimagined as the Evil Tree Troll) is not missed – indeed, any indication that the Swans were creatures of some evil wizard would have undermined the message that you are who you are, not what someone, real or fictional, made you.
And the performances were uniformly sensational. Kabera’s Queen was the anti-queen: perhaps everything you’d dreamed the Queen could be, but never dreamed you’d see. Commanding one moment, conniving the next, and consumed by her form of sexual desire at all times, Kabera’s performance was scathingly perfect. Lyndon turned what might be seen as a one-note role into something almost endearing, and almost constantly wink-wink hilarious. James Lovell’s Prince was a remarkable portrayal on its own. Beyond conveying a character, his performance conveyed a soul in torment believably. His performance was as praiseworthy as Ball’s. And in every respect, the Corps (doubling and tripling as servants, royal “palace guards,” princess escorts, and other characters too numerous to mention) collectively moved like a Swiss watch — and the swans, including Bourne’s version of cygnets and “big swans,” were a memorable and vicious group.
But in a dazzling portrayal in every sense of the word, Ball, a Principal with the Royal Ballet (who first came to international attention in 2018 when he replaced an injured David Hallberg in mid-performance in Giselle), made this Swan Lake unforgettable. I suspect that any dancer portraying The Swan / The Stranger, this version’s Odette / Odile, would be extraordinary. It’s that kind of role. But Ball’s performance here was jaw-dropping. The power is built into the choreography, but Ball added to it by the force of his stage personality — including his mind-boggling Act III, in which he combines the best of Rothbart (not the one in the lizard suit) in American Ballet Theatre’s production with the best of the Black Swan (the character; not the film). I cannot overstate how extraordinary Ball’s performance was.
I have some qualms and complaints. Most significantly, Bourne’s female characters are funny, but most are negative stereotypes: the oversexed mother who rivals Lady Capulet; the bimbo girlfriend; faceless robotic nurses; the princesses who have no commendable qualities; even an uninterested stripper who looks drugged and smokes like a chimney. They all work well in context, but couldn’t there have been at least one admirable female character? And the insinuation that the Prince’s sexual orientation is the product of, or related to, his environment and upbringing (he’s a classic momma’s boy) is stereotypical as well. Isn’t this contrary to the message? I found the “shooting” in Act III confusing, and don’t know where The Swan suffered the injury clearly evident in Act IV (did he try to pull his feathers out learning that the Prince had betrayed him), or why the other swans pluck him to death (were they reacting to The Swan’s weakness, or to The Swan’s coming out)? The Princess / Escorts dance in Act III has many of the male escorts moving in a stereotypically effeminate manner (at least those in the front of the ensemble). Why? As a counter to the “free”-moving powerful swans? Regardless, to me it appeared purposeless. The Princess dances in Act III are weak – and it’s difficult to determine which princess is representative of which country, and which cast member is portraying which princess (although not having a series of stop-action divertissements is an improvement). And couldn’t Bourne have inserted at least one fouette somewhere, for old time’s sake? Last, cast members are assigned to multiple roles, and alternate between one and another, depending on the performance date. That’s fine. But they’re not without individual identities, and those appearing in featured roles, no matter how “small,” should be specifically identified for each performance.
In the overall scheme of things, however, these observations are minor. Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is exceptional dance theater that is guaranteed to make an impact on any viewer regardless of sexual orientation, and regardless of which cast member dances which roles. It should not be missed.
In my review of Bourne’s The Sleeping Beauty several years ago, I ended with a play on the standard written fairy tale ending. Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake isn’t a fairy tale – at least not in the usual sense. But the feeling is equally appropriate here. Its run at City Center ends on February 9. Find time to see it, and you’ll leave happily ever after.