Paul Parish: More on the scary, sexy power of Matthew Bourne’s swans

I just want to back you up re Bourne’s corps. He took the deep material of “Swan Lake’s” adolescent hysteria — the insecurities that frequent hormonal surges and sudden growths made erupt in all of us at that stage when our bodies were changing so fast — and put them into his corps of swans.
The “traditional” “Swan Lake” makes poetic fiction, displaced into a picturesque mode, out of fears grounded in growing pains — the sudden longings to transcend, to belong, to be cared for; the sweaty nights when your legs hurt; the sudden awareness that hair was growing in places it never used to; the sense of power you got when you realized people were looking at you with lust-fascination in their eyes; the fear you felt when it was the wrong person looking at you like that; the fear when you realized you’d been caught looking at someone else that way and THEY despised you; the new fascination you had looking at your own body as secondary sex-characteristics begin to bloom; and the oscillation between wanting to publish and to cover up these powers.
The moments in Act 2 when the swans’ wings become arms, and the stunning moment at the end of the ballet when that process goes into reverse and the wings begin to beat again, are among the most striking depictions of this psychic material ever, and make “Swan Lake” rank in the popular awareness as great art of the very highest kind.
What Bourne managed to do was to dig into this material even more deeply. His swans at the end of his ballet are like the children at the end of “Lord of the Flies.” [ed. note: "Kill the beast! Cut his throat!" the savage island waifs chant as they home in on the saintly child among them.]
Bourne’s “Swan Lake” echoes the feelings of a queer kid in a society that rejects him — the hardest thing I’ve ever had to live with, aside from disappointing my mother, was having all the boys refuse to have anything to do with me when I was in high school, especially since it was THEIR love I wanted.
It’s to the point that when Bourne first choreographed “Swan Lake,” many believed the Soviet musicologist Aleksandra Orlova’s claim that Tchaikovsky was ordered to kill himself for his homosexuality and that he’d accepted the verdict. Balanchine died believing this (if Solomon Volkov, author of “Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky: Interviews with George Balanchine,” can be believed). It’s since been disproved, but the myth is appealing for many reasons, as it heightens the stakes and the anxiety around breaking a taboo and also reinforces the sense that there’s a dangerous secret encrypted in the image of the beautiful swan.
Apollinaire responds: This is exciting, Paul–not just what you’re saying about Bourne, but how you take it all the way back to Petipa’s 1895 “Swan Lake.” The adolescent angle helps explain why Prince Siegfried finds Odile–the evil double to Odette’s good swan–such a temptation: The boy with the growing pains can’t tell where his body ends and his feelings begin, and as the pumped up version of the fragile Odette, bad Odile is simply more body. In the betrayal scene, where the possibility of Odile causes him to break his pledge to Odette, body overtakes his heart.
I should say, though, some people are going to think you’ve gone off the deep end (just so you know!).
Paul responds: Yeah, but lots of people have never seen a great “Swan Lake.” I was lucky, I saw Ashton’s first, and it’s the only one that really builds, and like the second or third I saw, I cried and cried and cried. It left me so shaken, I couldn’t get out of my chair till almost everybody was out of the theater.
Antoinette Sibley (as Odette/Odile, good swan/bad swan) and Anthony Dowell (Prince Siegfried) were really uncanny together, both of them quite cool on the surface, but they were so tuned into each other, they could have been twins and gotten to know each other in the womb. UNCANNY. Her Odile was like Cleopatra, so full of variety – -and her fouettes [the 32 whipping turns every Odile performs] were completely unpredictable. SHE didn’t know when she was going to throw in a double….. I watched Dowell watch HER, he actually was as much in awe as any of us…. None of us could believe what we were seeing. She whipped him into a frenzy.

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