Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake / New York City Center / October 13 – November 7, 2010
Once upon a time, as Matthew Bourne tells us, there was a crown prince, a supersensitive fellow with an emotionally frozen mother (see Freud). Naturally, he gets himself entrapped by a tiara-coveting floozy (see the tabloids’ take on royalty), all the while fumbling at and fretting over the arid court duties he despises.
His instincts for romance, sex, true love, freedom from constraint, even rendezvous with danger–every young man’s birthright, wouldn’t you agree?–lead him down an unusual path. Moonlit, it takes him to the water’s edge, where he encounters the flock of swans he has often dreamed of. (At home in bed, his sleepy-toy is a plush swan.) The leader of the flock, called simply The Swan, and indeed all of the others are male–with shorn heads and bare chests chalked white, faces scored by an inky streak suggesting a beak, nether parts concealed to the knees with thickets of white feathers. Moving with heavily muscled grace–now blunt, now sensuous–they convey a terrifying power.
Swann’s Way: Jonathan Ollivier (front & center) and his flock in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake
Photo: Bill Cooper
I can’t wait any longer to say that the current version of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, at City Center through November 7, is the most gratifying re-invention of the Petipa-Ivanov Swan Lake, I’ve ever had the good luck to see. The production, a significant reworking of the piece since its first New York run in 1998 (it premiered in London in 1995), gives it far more meaningful dance–in terms of steps, gesture, and deeply visceral execution–and this is exactly what it needed.
Set to a recording of Tchaikovsky’s evocative score (essentially uncut) for the original ballet, Bourne’s Lake operates in three different arenas–often simultaneously. The simplest is an account of royal life, which turns palace into prison, encourages covert misbehavior (Her Majesty’s daily agenda is a mix of opening exhibitions, christening sea liners, and secret trysts), and suppresses basic human instincts so that they must be converted into over-the-top dreams. The second is an account of the life of the id, which can be thwarted but, blessedly, never fully quelled. Last but far from least is the spinning of a complex and subtle relationship of the Bourne version to the traditional Swan Lake. The latter is, of course, the emblem of classical dance, with its tragic tale of the poignant Odette, transformed into a swan by a wicked, perhaps lascivious, magician; her evil alter ego, Odile (a single ballerina usually portrays the stories of both O’s); and Prince Siegfried, who is fatally distracted by the glittering bad girl into mistaking her for the good one.
This multilayered arrangement is ambitious and, to be frank, it doesn’t always cohere. Nevertheless, as with Alexei Ratmansky’s wonderful Namouna, you forgive the little lurches because the material is so fertile and engaging and its treatment so f
The top stars of Bourne’s Lake on the night I saw it (the taxing main roles are double-cast) were Simon Williams as The Prince and Jonathan Ollivier in the dual role of The Swan (Odette) and The Stranger (Odile). Williams, persuasive because of his boyish looks and earnest attitude–like those of the young Baryshnikov–is a very good dancer and a resourceful actor (when he despairs, as he often does, it’s hard to resist giving him instant empathy.)
Ollivier as the Odette figure in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake
Photo: Bill Cooper
Ollivier is a remarkable dancer–long and lean, with a space-slicing leap that conjures up an image of a sword doing its worst. In his Odette guise, he’s a mournful outsider seeking a love he yearns for but has never known. In his Odile incarnation (wearing provocative black leather trousers) he is raw, ruthless, and commanding. Crashing a dressed-to-kill party at the castle, he makes aggressive sexual overtures to every femme in sight, doing double duty with The Queen (Nina Goldman, cool even at her most randy) and turns the presentation of the princesses auditioning for the role of Consort to the Heir Apparent into a satisfyingly wild orgy.
The high point of the dancing is the love pas de deux for The Prince and The Swan. The duet has a vein of antagonism–often a part of lovemaking–but inevitably the two succumb to the white heat of their mutual attraction. The movement vocabulary is, first and foremost, very creaturely, full of well-observed swan mannerisms and extensions of them. The Swan nuzzles The Prince with the sweetness of an adolescent newly aware of physical love. The Prince lifts The Swan so that the bird appears to take flight in all its wide-winged magnificence and the image becomes a metaphor for the notion that both partners are soaring high–on the joy of finding, against all odds, the perfect mate.
The ensemble extends the idea of the wild, free animal driven by primal instincts with movement that’s bold and weighty, sinewy and sensuous, insinuating a danger that’s implicitly evil.
The Prince achieves ecstatic release in his mating with The Swan at the price of his life (and The Swan’s life too). True to their breed, the swans in this covey are vicious when the objects of their attachment are threatened. (Once, in Central Park, I fled from a male swan that decided I was getting too close to his cygnets.) The swans turn on their leader and his lover and destroy them. But Bourne allows his Swan and Prince the apotheosis tradition calls for. Through a skylight in the Prince’s bedroom the pair can be glimpsed together–at last and forever. I didn’t weep when I saw this last night, but now, remembering it and writing about it, I feel, welling up, the tears it has earned.
Admittedly I’m a Janey-come-lately to admirers of this show. I managed to resist it–vigorously–at its New York premiere a dozen years back, though it subsequently copped three Tony Awards. The production has been touring worldwide ever since, applauded by a great range of spectators, from balletomanes to folks cheerfully unaware of–or perhaps immune to–the pleasures of classical dancing. Meanwhile Bourne has created other works for his company, New Adventures, several of them with similarly oblique takes on landmark works of art. I hope that next time round, I’m quicker to catch on.
© 2010 Tobi Tobias