It’s been nearly a quarter century since Matthew Bourne’s bold reimagining of the classic Tchaikovsky ballet “Swan Lake” turned the dance world on its collective ear. His bold choice to recast its famous Swan Princess as a Swan Prince instead, with an attendant corps-de-ballet of male dancers replacing the traditional female ones, was near blasphemy in the deeply traditional world of ballet at the time, for no other reason than because it simply wasn’t done; more than that, of course, it meant that the doomed romance at the center of the ballet was transformed into a love story between two men – and in 1995, that was an unprecedented idea, and a controversial one, to say the least.
That controversy was at least partly responsible, no doubt, for turning Bourne’s audacious spectacle into the longest-running ballet in the history of the art form – but only partly, because the electrifying brilliance of the choreographer’s staging made it clear that this was a young upstart with more than enough talent to elevate his cheeky concept to the level of a world-class dance masterpiece. It made him arguably the most famous choreographer in the world, and he’s gone on to a career full of hits and accolades that almost any other creative artist could only dream of achieving.
The world has changed in the intervening decades, and much progress has been made in the struggle for LGBTQ visibility and acceptance – but that doesn’t mean that “Swan Lake,” remounted by Bourne (SIR Matthew Bourne, now) and now onstage at the Ahmanson Theatre, doesn’t still pack a punch.
Yes, it’s true that the power of its gender-swapped casting has mellowed somewhat – watching two impossibly beautiful, impossibly athletic, and impossibly graceful men dance together with smoldering chemistry no longer feels transgressive (thank goodness) – and that AIDS, which cast a long and overt shadow over the ballet when it debuted at the height of the epidemic, no longer seems like such an inevitable part of the subtext. Nevertheless, to see it is to be reminded that the work of a visionary artist is not only timeless, but also worth experiencing over and over again.
The new incarnation retains the iconic elements of Bourne’s original production, in which the ballet’s traditional fairy-tale story is translated into a roughly modern, decidedly English allegory about the conflict between love and duty through the story of a discontented young prince, pressured by a cold and distant mother and the apparatus of her state to find a suitable bride; he falls in love with an enchanted swan, but since the original tale’s evil sorcerer is nowhere to be found in Bourne’s version, it remains tantalizingly unclear whether the swan is a human being that has been cursed or some figment of the prince’s wishful imagination – or if the malevolent doppelgänger that invades the royal ball in the second half is an imposter sent to torment him, as in the original, or merely the dark flip side of his fantastical delusion. The ambiguity, far from undermining the story, serves to illuminate its underlying psychological and sociological themes in a way that renders intellect irrelevant, and allows us to experience them on a purely visceral, emotional level. Upon this groundwork, the presence of a same-sex couple in the center of it all evokes an almost primal longing that will be familiar to anyone who has ever wanted something they are not “supposed” to want – but for LGBTQ audiences, it takes on an additional power, serving as an assertion against the forces of “propriety” that would deny their right to exist. Simply put, it’s the openly gay Bourne’s way of saying, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.”
There’s no point in attempting to describe the visual delights of this “Swan Lake.” It’s enough to say that the gifted choreographer weaves his magic against a spectacular, huge-scale scenic design that is almost as majestic as the remarkable prowess of his dancers. The joy of Bourne’s approach – in which he blends ballet with a wide and eclectic array of other dance styles to tell his story with an almost cinematic flow of breathtaking imagery – is that he infuses his work with delicious whimsy even as he gives full weight to its drama; there are countless little moments of delight throughout, manifested through details of costume and set, cultural nods incorporated into the movement and staging, and above all through the expressiveness he cultivates in his dancers, who continually amaze us with their acting abilities even as the perfection of their physical performances takes our breath away. The cumulative effect is a sense of wonder, as we watch the players move seamlessly across the stage, our eye being led to follow the action from one heart-stopping piece of visual poetry to another.
In the end though, what is most unforgettable about Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake” is the thing that made it famous. His once-shocking same-sex conceit allows us to witness an incredible display of masculinity at its most heightened and idealized, transcending notions of sexuality and existing in the realm of pure expression. Nowhere is that more profoundly employed than in the ballet’s most iconic sequence, in which a posturing, aggressively masculine gang of swans wield a threatening presence that provides a stark contrast against the tenderness of the pas de deux between the two star-crossed (and species-crossed) male lovers.
In a very real way, it expresses the struggle that LGBTQ people have faced for time out of mind – but it also expresses the beauty, the purity and the absolute inevitability of love, no matter what outward form it takes.
If you’re looking for an entertainment experience to celebrate the spirit of the holiday season we are currently in, you can’t ask for a more appropriate message than that.
“Swan Lake” continues at the Ahmanson Theatre through January 5.