I have two conflicting reactions to Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. First, the more positive one: This is tremendously exciting, inspired and inspirational dance-making. Bourne juggles vastly divergent movement vocabularies with breathtaking ease and dazzling panache. Seeing Bourne’s work in Mary Poppins I knew that his vision was the best one I’ve ever seen for the future of musical theatre choreography: big, brash, original and energetic, with a strong, seductive undercurrent of mystery and mysticism.
Swan Lake has all of those qualities in spades. In his version of Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet, a repressed Prince falls in love with a male swan. In his extensive dances with the swan and his flock, there are strong hints that the prince undergoes a mystical transformation, with an enormous moon looming large in the background. These svelte bare-chested swans dance with a raw, almost pagan power. If nothing else, this sequence metaphorically captures how deeply powerful coming to terms with your sexuality can be. The scenes that take place at court are also ravishing in their own way, with Lez Brotherston’s flashy, glamorous sets and costumes beautifully matching Bourne’s athletic yet elegant dances.
So I do think Bourne is a singular genius, and his Swan Lake is indeed the modern classic everyone makes it out to be. But that doesn’t mean I think its perfect. While looking firmly ahead in the way he choreographs, Bourne doesn’t edit like a 21st century storyteller. The extended dances with the swans feature the most riveting dancing in the entire show, but they go on too long and eventually become a bit redundant, which undercuts their power. I understand the impulse to use every note Tchaikovsky wrote, but I don’t think it’s the right impulse.
Also, given that Bourne has taken enormous liberties with the ballet’s original story, I’m a bit confused about why he chooses to end it so conventionally. Why, inherently, does this have to be a tragedy? The lead swan faces a rebellion from the other swans at the end that made no sense to me whatsoever. In a sense this version ends even more pessimistically than the original. Yes, in the original the Prince and the Swan Princess Odette drown themselves, but in the process they take down the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart. Nothing so cathartic happens here, we just see the swan and the prince happy in heaven. That’s it? Really?
My objections aren’t minor, but Bourne is such a freaking genius that I don’t think they subtract that much from the work’s overall appeal. Call it a flawed must-see.
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