Swan Lake – Matthew Bourne

Swan Lake – Matthew Bourne

Matthew Bourne and His Adventures in Motion Pictures Alastair Macaulay

It’s not fluffy feathers and pointe shoes. Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake sailed into San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre this week on a wave of well-earned international acclaim and, while purists may find it just tutu different from the iconic classic for their taste, the sight of bare-chested hunks twirling around the hapless hero certainly shows what’s happening on the opposite shore.

Very funny in parts, it’s not really a spoof. Not only structured for shock effect; a lot of it rings true. According to Bourne, who studied them closely before composing this piece more than a decade ago, there are two sides to every swan. Those fluffy white gliding creatures are very territorial, protective of their chosen mates and pack a powerful punch in their wings. A bite of a beak could break an arm. Just as there are two sides to every swan, humans carry both masculine and feminine traits so the gender-bending aspects of this conception of the story of doomed love make some sense. The homoerotic element makes it only that much more tragic.

Updated to the present time, the tale opens on a boy-prince (Neil Penlington), waking from a dream of a ferocious hovering bird only to find himself clutching his toy stuffed swan. His aloof mother (Saranne Curtin) enters and confines her maternal ministrations to feeling his forehead for fever. Finally the prince climbs out of bed on the backs of his servants and is dressed. The years pass in a soul-deadening succession of ship launchings, monument unveilings and royal waving. The self-assured Queen loves it all, especially the attentions of the handsome young officers she encounters along the way, but the Prince is more than bored.

At length the Prince acquires a girlfriend (Leigh Daniels) – blonde, sexy, a little trashy and totally unacceptable to Mama. The sinister Private Secretary (Alan Mosley), a stand-in for the evil von Rothbart of the original, pays the girl to stay away – but not before we are treated to a night at the opera that rivals the Marx Brothers in hilarity and a less-successful bar scene in which the Prince is rejected, not only by the girl but also by the other patrons who laugh at him. At this point the audience begins to long for intermission but, it is exactly at this point that the whole tone of the thing changes. Determined to put an end to his miserable existence, the Prince makes his way to a lake, pins up a suicide note and gets ready to jump in.

Enter the swans, led by the hunky alpha male (Alan Vincent) who both menaces and protects the frail prince from the others. Never deviating a bit from the Tchaikovsky score (well played under Earl Stafford’s baton), the men enact the famous “white ballet” of Act Two. Some of the dancing is very funny, especially the four klutzy little cygnets, but some is very beautiful – the Prince’s dance of despair and the entrance of the lead swan, in particular. The famous waltz is as graceful as one could wish as is the Adagio, with the dancers reversing roles, the more frail Prince lifted by the burly swan more often than not. The Prince, fascinated by the head swan, finds new reason to live. Bourne’s choreography leans more to storytelling than fancy footwork but the cleverness of the concept carries it through. Perhaps it should be billed more as a dance entertainment than a ballet but, what’s in a label?

The second act is even more exciting than the first. The usual ball scene, complete with divertissements, it is interrupted by a mysterious Stranger – actually the dark side of the lead swan and performed by the same dancer. Ruthlessly captivating every woman in the room, he finally seduces the Queen, driving the Prince, who recognizes something of his true love in the Stranger, right off his rocker. The denouement, back in the dying Prince’s bedroom, actually is quite terrifying, as the head Swan, restored to himself, defends the Prince from the menacing flock. Rick Fisher’s lighting design makes maximum use of shadows here to heighten the effect.

The dancers, especially Penlington and Vincent, are outstanding; Bourne’s wit is incisive and the tragic end is true to the original tale.

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San Francisco, CA
Suzanne Weiss has been writing about the arts for the past 35 years. Formerly Arts Editor for the papers of Pioneer Press in the northern Chicago suburban area, her work also has appeared in Stagebill and Crain’s Chicago Business, among other publications. Since moving to the Bay Area she has reviewed theater, opera, dance and the occasional film for the San Mateo Times, “J” and is a regular contributor to culturevulture. She is the author of “Glencoe, Queen of Suburbs.”