Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake
Is Fresh and Vibrant

Also see Richard's reviews of The Ice-Breaker and Old Wicked Songs

The revolutionary production of Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake has finally come to San Francisco, and it was well worth the wait. This work of dance art had its American premiere at the Neil Simon Theatre on September 28, 1998, and it received rave reviews. The New York Times called it a "one of a kind Broadway phenomena." The production received three Tony awards, including Best Choreography and Best Director for Matthew Bourne. It also garnered several Drama Desk Awards that year.

During my high school years, I saw the classic Petipa-Ivanov version of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake danced by the Ballet Monte Carlo in Columbus, Ohio, and it gave me an appreciation for the art. Since then I have loved the piece; it is one of my most favorite ballets. I have seen this wonderful work danced by some of the greatest ballet companies in the world, but Matthew Bourne's effervescent work with a new story knocks me for a loop. This is pure theatre even for persons who don't like ballet.

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake opens with The Young Prince (Neil Penlington) tossing and turning in a beautiful white kingly bed, disturbed by nightmares. The audience sees a large masculine swan (Alan Vincent) appearing above the bed. The Queen (Saranne Curtin) tries to calm the Prince, but she is unable to give him the love that he needs. You know you are going to see a different version than the classic heterosexual ballet of unrequited love.

The innovative ballet's first act shows the Prince attempting to become part of the Royal Family by waving and smiling a lot to his subjects, cutting ribbons and launching new ships. The comic detailing of the Royal Family, which looks suspiciously like the Windsors, is impeccable. There is even a Vamp (a wonderful dizzy Leigh Daniels) who could have been Fergie who comes along hoping to bed the young prince. She wears an outfit that Bjork would envy. However, the prince is still trying to find his sexual identity. This act is mostly parody, with hilarious camping of Petipa-Ivanov's version when The Prince, The Queen and The Vamp attend the ballet. During this new version, the Vamp's cell phone rings and stops the action. This act also includes the wild and sexual Swank disco club dance scene where the audience sees the whole company dancing the frug and other disco dances. This is reminiscent of the dance club scenes in Contact, only this time the music is Tchaikovsky's.

Swan Lake's second act turns more serious as The Prince is in deep despair since he cannot find a significant relationship. He attempts suicide by throwing himself into a lake full of swans on the palace grounds. The effort is stopped by the leader of the swans (Alan Vincent). The dancing between the two is sexual and incomparable, and The Prince now realizes he is gay - and he has found his perfect mate. The leading swan is frightening yet seductive. His flock of all males comes surging onto the stage in a stunning scene of dancing. However, true love never runs smoothly, especially when a stranger in black leather pants (also played by Alan Vincent) with a nasty sadomasochistic streak knocks everyone off their Royal feet at the court's party. His sexy dance and looks cause fluttering of the hearts of both male and female - even the icy Queen melts to his sexual advances. The stranger turns out to be the Prince's heart's desire, the leader of the swans. Tragedy occurs and the young prince goes insane. He is treated with shock therapy and psychotropic drugs.

The ballet's final scene reverts to the first scene, with The Prince back in his bedroom. The lead swan returns and invites him into his bed. The other swans are livid that their leader can love a human being and they kill him. The Prince dies alone of complete despair.

Alan Vincent (who alternates with Jose Tirado) is superb as the lead swan and the stranger with his athletic ability and sexual presence. He projects both savage intensity and wiry grace in his dancing of both parts.

The dancing of Neil Penlington (who alternates with Simon Wakefield) as The Prince with Vincent in the romantic scene of the second act is mesmerizing. The prince almost becomes one with the swan as he presses his body to absorb its authority and vivacity. Penlington is the perfect naïve prince and his bouts with his dreams and terror are compelling.

The male swans' dance moves are not true classical ballet and they are not strictly polished. However, the dancers are forceful in their movements as swans. They squirm and murmur, scorn and preen. This group of amazing young dancers are frightening when just stomping their feet on the stage. It is a gripping performance even to the point when the swans mass attack the leader and The Prince in the bedroom.

Saranne Curtin (who alternates with Oxana Panchenko and Nina Goldman) plays the Queen with faultless authority and moves about the stage with freezing composure. The stranger unfreezes her serenity and she becomes a sexual being in their dance during the Royal Party scene. Leigh Daniels (alternates with Agnes Vandrepote) is cute and pert as the Vamp.

Set and costume designer Lez Brotherston has devised some of the most opulent sets that have been seen in the Orpheum Theatre. Each set, from the prince's bedroom with a huge white bed surrounded by monolithic white pillars to the red hot colors of the disco club to the beautiful moonlit swan lake, is breathtaking. The costumes are brilliant in color, and the male swans are sensual in feathered trousers and bare chests.

The 21-piece orchestra under the direction Earl Stafford gives Tchaikovsky's score great majesty. Once again Matthew Bourne has given us a new outlook on classical ballets.

Mathew Bourne's Swan Lake is at the Orpheum Theatre, 1182 Market at 8th, San Francisco through April 16th. For tickets please call 415-512-7770, at, at all Ticketmaster Ticket Center and at the Orpheum Theatre Box Office.

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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