Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake
Also see John's review of Loving Repeating: A Musical of Gertrude Stein
Matthew Bourne’s sexy male swans, who first visited America on Broadway in 1998, are back in the US for a brief 11-city North American tour, giving those of us who had missed them during their 17-week stay at New York’s Neil Simon Theatre another opportunity to catch this remarkable piece. I had the opportunity to see the Broadway engagement on a Monday night in fall of 1998, but passed in favor of a much less worthy pursuit. I was grateful to get the opportunity to correct that past mistake, and to learn that Bourne’s version of the classic ballet is more than just a gender-bending interpretation that substitutes the iconic shirtless male dancers as the swans in place of ballerinas in tutus; it is also a dark, complex and richly visual psycho-sexual nightmare.
In place of the original story that concerns the young Prince Siegfried falling in love with a Swan by day who turns into a beautiful woman each night, Bourne has the young prince as a thoroughly sexually confused young man. He alternately lusts after and disapproves of his widowed mother and, though he has a (common and thoroughly unsuitable) girlfriend, he displays homosexual tendencies (toward the Swan and a mysterious stranger) as well.
The sumptuous sets and costume designs by Lez Brotherston place the action in an indeterminate time that incorporates looks of various periods in the late 20th century, including a seedy bar called the Swank Club and the cold, forbidding Palace, dominated by six giant pillars. The scene at the Swank Club, to which the Prince follows his girlfriend who betrays him there, is an especially dark underworld. The Prince is unrecognized and abused by the gangsters, gay sailors and hustlers within. Here, everything is decidedly and deliciously not “beautiful at the ballet.”
Then again, while this is a ballet, it incorporates a variety of dance styles beyond classic ballet, including contemporary dance, social dance and mime. It’s a visual style that is highly accessible to the musical theater and seems to be a rare instance of placing contemporary themes and settings into a dance style other than contemporary abstract. Bourne’s dancers here do little of the gravity-defying, exceedingly graceful movement we associate with ballet, but instead have a simplicity and slight coarseness that I took to be in keeping with the grittiness of the theme rather than imprecision on the part of the dancers.
The five principal roles are at least double-cast – on the night I attended two ensemble members were in as the Prince and the Girlfriend. Samuel Plant is an exceptionally effective actor as well as dancer in playing the sexually confused and anguished Prince. If he can speak and sing, he could be an amazing musical theater actor. Alan Vincent makes a charismatic, masculine and hairy-chested Swan, and in a dual role, the menacing Stranger who creates havoc at the Palace Ball in the second half of the program. Ballerina Oxana Panchenko is not only a graceful and elegant Queen, but captures the complexities of a mother balancing parental and royal duties with pursuit of her carnal needs. Alan Mosley is a treacherous and slimy Private Secretary. Chloe Wilkinson, the other ensemble member moving up to principal, is an effectively comic Girlfriend.
While mildly controversial in the season of its Broadway run for qualifying and winning several Tonys in the “Musical” categories (including Best Director, no less), Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is certainly a ballet rather than a musical, but it’s one of those pieces that can win over musical theater fans to another art form providing many of the same pleasures. If not that, I know I for one will soon be looking for the available videos of Bourne’s pieces like The Car Man and looking forward to his choreography in musical theater for Mary Poppins and Edward Scissorhands.
Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake runs through Sunday, February 26 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 West Randolph Street, Chicago. Tickets are available through Broadway in Chicago box offices at 24 W. Randolph and 151 W. Randolph St., at the Auditorium Theatre Box Office, through the Broadway in Chicago Ticket Line at 312-902-1400 and online at ticketmaster.com. Information on the North American Tour, which will run through May 14th and has stops in seven more cities after Chicago, is available at www.swanlaketour.com.