Matthew Bourne, probably Britain's greatest younger choreographer, has reset the old and great ballet of Swan Lake into a tale of British royal satire, repressed sexuality and just plain human longing for comfort and protection. And if you've heard about this version, it is definitely not all male; there are plenty of female dancers around. The Swan Queen, however, is now The Swan King. The corps de ballet who form The Swan King's court, traditionally delicate swan maidens in white tutus, are now bare-chested, muscular male swans with mean, dark-shadowed eyes, twitching heads and hair combed to a dark point down their foreheads. They wear something like feathered leggings from waist to knee.
The traditional Swan Lake story has the young prince encountering an enchanted princess, human by night, a swan by day, who can only have the spell broken by true love. The prince swears his devotion, but is tricked by the sorcerer into thinking another is The Swan Queen. He realizes his mistake, but it's too late. He rushes to the lake, finds The Swan Queen and joins her in death but reunited in love.
In Bourne's version it is Britain in the Fifties. We meet the young prince as a fearful child, dominated by his unfeeling mother, the Queen, and manipulated by the Queen's evil press secretary. The lonely boy finds comfort only by imagining a brave swan who will protect him and look over him.
Ten years later the prince still is dominated by his mother, who has scarcely aged. He thinks he loves a young woman who is considered unsuitable by the Queen. She announces she will hold a ball and introduce him to proper candidates. Eventually in a drunken, repressed rage he flees the palace and finds himself on the shores of a park lake. As in a dream he encounters The Swan King and the King's court of male swans. The ball is held, but the press secretary introduces the Queen to his own son, who looks just like The Swan King. The Queen announces she will marry him. The prince strikes his mother, he is confined and apparently operated on. In a delirium he encounters the real Swan King again, who protects him from the male swans who have appeared around his bed. The end of the ballet has the Prince dead on the floor. The Swan King stands high above the bed, holding in his arms the body of the Prince as a child.
The two great dance set pieces are the divertissement of the second act, where the Prince meets the Swan King and the male swans, and the Queen's Ball where all the manipulations and angst come to a head. If nothing else, the divertissement is worth the price of the disc. This is choreography and dance of the highest order. Tchaikovsky's music, so well-known, has never seemed fresher. At times playing against political satire, at other times playing against a completely revisionist view of what a corps de ballet should be, the lush, romantic music turns out to be a wonderful counterpoint to Bourne's muscular choreography.
While one can argue that the ballet is as much about the Prince's repressed sexuality as it is his loneliness, this aspect is understated. The ballet is full of prostitutes, paparazzi, sailors and princesses on the make. The Queen bears a resemblance, perhaps unintentionally, to a Joan Collins-like woman who keeps boy toys amongst her palace guard. The palace ball reeks of casual, corrupt omni-sexuality.
Adam Cooper dances The Swan King. He's a handsome, tough-looking guy who carries off the part with style. Scott Ambler dances The Prince and is just as good. The DVD's picture and audio are first-rate. There is an informative insert which includes an interview with Matthew Bourne. I recommend this disc highly for those who like ballet, Tchaikovsky, great choreography and great dancing -- and who might appreciate a startling new look at things.
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About the reviewer
C. O. DeRiemer (Charley2)
Since I retired in 1995 I have tried to hone skills in muttering to myself, writing and napping. At 75, I live in one of those places where one moves from independent living to hospice. I expect to begin … more
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