You might know of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. Like me, you might know it as “that Swan Lake at the end of Billy Elliot”. Not knowing much more than the cool swan costume Billy wore at the end of Billy Elliot, it was with a large degree of the unexpected that I headed to the NY City Center on November 4th to see this production.
First, some history of the piece. Matthew Bourne first created this piece in 1995 with the aim of a short run at Saddler’s Wells in London. The public had other ideas though, and soon there were record-breaking West-End, Broadway and International productions. This is the first time the production has returned to New York since leaving Broadway, where it won multiple Tony Awards. Bourne is constantly changing details in the production and has made his “biggest changes yet” while reviving the piece in New York.
When the production was first shown it was met with a mixture of shock, intrigue and outrage. There were even walk-outs during performances – not something you’d expect from a dance piece! This was mainly because Bourne did something rather daring with this Swan Lake – he made all the swans male.
This was certainly, on first glance, an odd choice. After all, in the traditional Ballet Odette, the White Swan, is such a graceful entity exuding pure femininity. Similarly Odile, the Black Swan, is such a sensual character that it’s hard to imagine a man playing that role. Add on top of that the love story between Siegfried and Odette/Odile and changing the swan to guys seems doomed to fail. However with a few deft changes to the story (although not without some flaws) Bourne taps into another side of the swan – that of strength and power.
Swan Lake Poster at NY City Center. Photo by David Wilson
If you have ever seen a swan up close (as I used to do at 5am while heading to Crew outings) you will probably appreciate just how strong and intimidating these creatures are. When they open their wings to their full span they are mightily impressive creatures – and not something to mess with. It was this side of them that inspired Bourne and which he tried to capture in this piece, and I believe he managed this to great effect.
So onto the performance. We begin with the familiar opening music, and a white curtain with a stylized swan in flight rises to reveal the young Prince, asleep in his Royal bed, hugging a small stuffed toy of a swan. As the music gets more agitated, the young Prince tosses and turns as his nightmare continues. His mother, The Queen (played by the elegant Nina Goldman), appears and checks on him with The Private Secretary (representing Von Rothbart). Suddenly The Swan (played by the outstanding Richard Winsor) appears over the bed, in the young Prince’s nightmare.
After waking, servants dress The Prince and get him ready for his Royal duties. It was here that I realised there was going to be a lot more humour and theatricality in this piece than in the traditional Ballet. Actually, I would not call it a Ballet, and neither does Bourne who describes it more as “contemporary dance/theatre”. In Ballet, the dance is absolute whereas in this production the theatricality is absolute. By that, I mean that in classical Ballets a character could be dying (as they are often wont to do) and still the dancing will be perfectly executed and technically brilliant. In this production, if a character is drunk (as they seem often wont to do) it will tell in their dancing, although it will certainly still be skillful. I think both types of dance have their place, and although I prefer the classical approach in general, here the other approach was well-suited.
As The Prince carries out his duties, he grows up and we are introduced to our fully-grown Prince (played by the brilliant Simon Williams). We also start to see some of the “mommy-issues” that will be an overarching theme throughout the story. He soon meets The Girlfriend (played by the hilarious Shelby Williams) who is a fantastically outrageous character – dressed in a voluptuous neon pink dress (with plenty of leg showing) – and I can’t help but feel a lot of his subsequent attraction to her stems from the fact she is the complete antithesis of The Queen. There are obviously meant to be certain parallels drawn to the British Royal Family (Charles, Diana and Queen Elizabeth II) but I don’t believe the reality was anywhere near this extreme!
Next-up was hands-down the funniest scene of the night: a Royal Gala performance of a ‘Ballet’. The Girlfriend proceeds to do every single theatre faux pas: from laughing out loud to yawning to answering her mobile, even offering The Queen some crinkly wrapped sweets. In the meantime, the ‘Ballet’ is a great little satire on classical Ballet: pained expressions on the dancers faces, ridiculous costumes, a hero with a handlebar moustache and lederhosen hotpants, it’s all there!
After The Queen storms out in disgust we segue to The Prince alone in his room at a mirror. In the following variation we catch a glimpse of how emotive Williams can be with his dancing – we get the feeling of a torn soul, unsure where to turn. After drinking some vodka he confronts The Queen when she appears. Trying to just get a simple hug (more mummy-issues) she eventually slaps him, prompting him to stumble to a seedy nightclub.
I felt this set design was the only point in the performance which really betrayed the age of this piece, and while it was probably effective in the 90s, it now came across as almost comically outdated which detracted a little from the following scenes. After getting thrown out (and slumped underneath a sign for Swan matches – nice touch!) he sees The Private Secretary pay off The Girlfriend who, after initially refusing, ends up taking the money, not knowing that her ‘love’ was watching all along.
Arriving, drunk, at a local park the Prince writes a suicide note and decides to take his life. He is saved however by the sight of a swan at the back of the park. The next scene mimics the structure of the original choreography with a collection of dances involving a multitude of swans.
This whole act was excellently choreographed, especially the Pas de Deux between The Prince and The Swan, and the Dance of the Cygnets. It certainly conveyed the power-aspect to the swans, although I wasn’t prepared for how sweaty the swans would get! Unlike classical Ballets where there is no evidence of physical exertion, the swans were literally soaked in sweat by the end of the act. I dread to think what those costumes must smell like…
Obviously a lot can be read into the Pas de Deux and it definitely runs the gambit from playful to sensual. Whatever your thoughts to its message though, I simply view it as a great piece of dance showcasing two great male dancers. As the Pas ends the Swan carries the Prince away in a protective hold and the other swans carry on the dancing.
I felt the Dance of the Cygnets perfectly conveyed that period of teenage awkwardness everyone goes through, with the four swans alternating between trying to be macho and copy the adult swans, and trying to fly and ending up flailing wildly as they fail. The whole dance came across as a fun, almost cute, and yet technically respectable dance. After the swans finally disappear, the Prince comes back to reality (from wherever it was he went) and, after deciding not to kill himself, runs off to the end of Act II.
During the intermission I was intrigued to overhear what others thought of the piece. Like myself, most commented on how impressed they were so far and how physically demanding the parts must be. There were surprisingly few comments on the Prince-Swan relationship which made me realise that this piece has lost some of it’s ‘shock-factor’ over the last 15 years. After all, my generation is a lot more accepting of gay relationships: on TV or in film, between celebrities or between friends; and gay marriage is finally starting to get legally and socially recognized as equal to straight marriage (although there is still a long way to go). I don’t think this lack of ‘shock’ actually detracts from the piece, in fact I feel it lets the audience concentrate more on the dancing which can only be a good thing.
The third Act begins with a red carpet at a Royal Party, complete with Paparazzi. The Queen, looking resplendent in a red gown, arrives with a distracted Prince and we see The Girlfriend sneak in. After a short while The Stranger appears balancing on the balcony balustrade. Supposedly this is meant to be The Private Secretary’s son, but I did not find this was conveyed clearly. It was clear, however,that this was the same dancer as The Swan from earlier, and it doesn’t take long for The Prince to notice the resemblance.
I felt this role was where Richard Winsor really shone. He exuded such bravado and confidence (even in tight leather trousers) that it was hard to take your eyes off him while he was on stage. He flirted shamelessly with all the guests, and there were some fantastic fiery dancing. Understandably, the Prince gets more and more agitated, especially when The Stranger takes some cigarette ash and marks his forehead – reminiscent of The Swan’s make-up in Act II (I thought this was a great little dramatic device). However The Prince really gets worked up when The Stranger starts to dance with The Queen (more mummy issues? Of course!). This pairing was surprising at first, but The Queen’s decorum contrasted well with The Stranger’s machismo. Particularly enjoyable was a sequence where The Queen was swung over successive tables; The Stranger bringing out her reckless side.
Finally, The Stranger and The Prince get to dance together and what starts out fight-like alternates between ferocity and flirtation. This was an emotionally and energetically charged dance, and although I preferred the “White Swan” Pas, it was still great to watch. Suddenly it is all too much for The Prince though, who pulls out a gun and threatens to shoot everyone, including himself. As he finally turns the gun on his mother (no wonder he saved her until last!) The Private Secretary rushes in to shoot The Prince. However, The Girlfriend throws herself in front of her unrequited love and so it is her that receives the fatal wound. You really cannot help but feel pity for her throughout this whole story, and there are definite parallels with Odette: she falls in love with a man who, while initially saying he loves her, causes her ultimate death. Unlike Odette though, her Prince does not profess his love after her death but rather he descends a fast spiral to madness.
The final Act opens with The Prince at the front of a white backdrop containing only a door and a single high, barred window lit by a single front stage light. This simple setting is a stroke of genius as, when The Queen and Private Secretary come to visit The Prince their shadows loom over The Prince making him, and the audience, feel intimidated and paranoid. After more pleading with his mother (surprise, surprise), the backdrop disappears to reveal the Royal Bedroom and The Prince climbs into the same bed the story opened with.
As The Prince falls off to sleep, the four cygnets crawl out from under the bed and start to dance, signifying The Prince’s return descent to madness. On seeing them, The Prince starts to freak out, and more swans appear – from the wings, under the bed, over the headboard and even through the bed itself.
I’ve always loved Tchaikovsky’s finale music to Swan Lake, especially its dark hint of madness and chaos. This music fitted perfectly to this scene as the swans suddenly turn on The Prince and surround him, with the intent of killing him. The Swan appears just in time, crawling over the bed to The Prince’s rescue. To unsurmountable odds, he faces the legions of swans who consequently turn on him also. Frenzied fighting ensues with both The Swan and The Prince defending against the hoards of swans, and eventually The Swan carries The Prince, in a fetal position, to the relative safety of his bed. As The Swan drives off the last of the birds, his wounds finally take their toll, and he dies.
The Queen enters, and goes to check on her son who is now strewn across the end of the bed. Going to wake him, his hand falls limply to the bed. As The Queen comes to term with her grief, and Tchaikovsky’s hopeful last few bars play, we see The Swan above the bed, as in that very first dream, carrying The Prince’s body, together at last.
As the curtain fell and the deserved standing ovation rose, I tried to think about what I felt the story stood for. I realised that as the story unfolded my thoughts of what The Swan/Stranger represented changed repeatedly. At different points the character seemed to represent a missing father figure, an escape from the Royal life, The Prince’s repressed sexuality, the onset of madness, a respite from The Prince’s mummy-issues and much more.
I also realised that it really doesn’t matter what the underlying subtext of the piece is – this was simply a great piece of dance, incorporating theatricality in a novel (or at least novel at its creation) way that showcased male dancing. I can easily see how it has become so popular and gained such a following. I also can see why some of the variations have become favorite recital pieces – they are a great mixture of virtuosity and acting, and are certainly impressive!
So, in summary, whoever you are – whether a Balletomane, Broadway lover or neither – go see this: you’ll never look at Swan Lake in the same way again!
Until next time, keep dancing!