A ‘Swan’ is Bourne



Return of radical rethink more than the sum of its male members

A swan on a lake is the elephant in the room — in Matthew Bourne’s gay reboot of Tchaikovsky’s sacred cow.

Although the notion of muscled, sexually menacing male swans haunting the uneasy dreams of a handsome prince doesn’t have quite the same taboo impact it did during its 1998 award-winning Broadway run, the show still packs a feisty wallop — and not just because of the queer novelty factor. In this version, the princess-turned-bird is a male swan who catches the eye of a prince grappling with his sexual orientation.

Speaking of elephants in the room, let’s just put it on the table from the get-go, okay? This “Lake” is all about bare chests, tight asses, feathered short pants cut just below the navel and sweat dripping from muscles built for high performance. And why not? Apart from the veneer of respectability that comes with the purchase of a ticket, more than a few culture vultures go to the ballet for the same reason men go to car shows — to ogle the bodywork on this year’s model.

Choreographer/Director Matthew Bourne drags that lurid motive out of the closet and into the swan-white light of day. From the very first scene (which finds our titular winged creature hovering ominously above the posh bed of a writhing prince), Bourne forces us to confront the hypocrisy of applauding male dancers for their masculine athleticism while snickering at the implied femininity of their career choice.

Anyone coming to the table with that sort of baggage is likely to undergo a quick and lasting conversion. Judging from the standing ovation given at the curtain call, audience members at both ends of the Kinsey Scale emerged from the experience fully invested in the queer ratcheting up of an already tragic narrative that milks love, longing and loss for all it’s worth.

There’s more at play here, though, than just a meaty homo spin on a classic tale. The production spends a tremendous amount of time obsessing over the ways in which jealousy and ambition toss a wrench into our best-laid plans. The compulsory duties of both prince and queen are stinging reminders that the connection they both long for is doomed by the covert agendas of servants, advisors and potential suitors.

Set and costume designer Lez Brotherston’s floor-to-ceiling white columns and brick walls (with the occasional red royal banner) enforce the notion that everybody’s isolated to some extent from the things they think will make them whole. Likewise, the rituals performed by servants in Act I’s bedroom and palace scenes hammer home the fact that this prince lives in a black and white world that won’t tolerate anyone who steps outside their appointed role.

Newsflash, young prince. That handsome stranger who literally whisks mom off her feet at Act III’s Royal Ball? He may look like the swan of your dreams, but the only thing you’ll get from giving him a public display of affection is the wrath of your formerly fawning subjects — and an express trip to the nuthouse.

At least there’s some comfort in the knowledge that before everything goes to hell in Act IV’s climactic bedroom scene, our prince evolves from closet case to curious to proud Mary — and, along the way, manages to dance in the dark with the man of his dreams. That this happens in public on a brilliant moonlit night is a sly nod to the grand tradition of cruising for gay sex in the wee hours as respectable society sleeps. It’s in this moment (the whole of Act II — “A City Park”) that Bourne delivers his most iconic visuals and dynamic choreography.

While the prince assumes the position of voyeur, the lead swan and his 14-member entourage preen, pose, jump and joust in a prolonged sequence that seems to require almost superhuman endurance. Fortunately for the viewer, it’s incredibly easy, and fun, to watch (one audience member said it inspired feelings of “adulation and awe”).

Later in Act II, the lead swan courts his curious prince as a four-pack of underlings sit, turn their sweaty backs to the audience, stare upwards towards the full moon and strike a muscular pose — which, with hands clasped firmly behind their backs, makes their shoulder blades look like a pair of (metaphor alert!) clipped wings.

By this point, the notion of two men dancing as a romantic couple — or a group of men stomping their feet as a declaration of sexual power — seems downright uneventful. Yet that long-delayed moment of first physical contact between prince and swan earns an audible gasp (which has more to do with empathy rather than being titillated by the notion of same-sex intimacy).

As Act II ends, exhausted dancers and onlookers alike have earned their intermission. Speaking of exhaustion, it’s worth noting that you’re likely to see different lead dancers at any given performance. At the two I saw (Oct. 15 and 24), Richard Winsor & Jonathan Ollivier played The Swan/Stranger, and Simon Williams & Dominic North played The Prince. Consistent in both performances were Nina Goldman as The Queen and Madelaine Brennan as The Girlfriend.

Although I brought a pen and notebook on Oct. 24, I’m proud to admit the purpose behind my second viewing was to watch 15 fit British lads run around in feathered short pants. And boy, do they ever! But at both performances, it was Brennan who stole the show with her depiction of a low-class social climber who sets her sights on the prince and utterly destroys her chances by going on a date (chaperoned by the Queen) during which she nibbles on snacks, talks on her cell phone and generally makes a spectacle of herself. It’s a comedic performance of great economy and skill, which would be a star-making turn even if she hadn’t danced a single step (which, of course, she does).

So there you have it. Bourne manages to deliver a “Swan” with bankable gay appeal in which a genuine biological woman damn near eclipses the lavender love story as danced by over a dozen perfect specimens. With so much gender role mishugas going on throughout, that unexpected turn of events seems perfectly natural.