What's Wrong with Bourne's "Swan Lake"?

November 28, 2001

You have to wonder how much experience Petipa actually had with swans. They’re elegant and graceful, yes–but they’re also mean, hissy, scary even. The male swans of Matthew Bourne’s wildly popular Swan Lake hit much closer to the mark, in that respect, than Petipa’s tutu-clad flock. Bourne’s beastly birds are seductive and arrogant–about as far from damsels in distress as you can get. Instead, they’re symbols of freedom and empowerment. Bourne’s Prince doesn’t attempt to rescue his Swan–the Swan rescues the Prince.

The male swan corps is a lovely conceit, and it must have seemed shockingly daring (and thus, in a way, even lovelier) when the show premiered in 1995. But there’s something unsatisfying about this production, beloved as it still is by fans and most critics. Maybe it’s because it’s now 15 years later–because in 2010, though homophobia is certainly still rampant, we’re at a point where gay kisses on TV don’t thrill, and therefore neither do pas de deux for two men. (Bourne claims that the show isn’t really about homosexuality, but its energy nevertheless stems from homoeroticism.)

I think the root of the issue, though, is the way Bourne frames the second act swan scene. In the first act, the royal family goes to the opera, which occasions a ballet-within-a-ballet–a little spectacle that neatly encapsulates all the strangest, cheesiest, most bizarre aspects of classical dance. (When the ballet’s hero minces onstage in his tights, the prince’s uncouth girlfriend can’t stop herself from guffawing. And we’re meant to chuckle along with her–at the ridiculous headdresses, the clunky fairytale storyline, the showy, fussy choreography.) It’s all very clever. The problem is that the mini-ballet acts as a foil for the second-act swan scene–which is, presumably, a purer version of dance, what Bourne thinks dance ought to be. He encourages us to laugh at the absurdity of certain stage conventions in the faux ballet, but that only emphasizes how seriously he takes his swans; he’s asking us to evaluate them earnestly, without the “handicaps” we usually grant a ballet. We can’t apply the suspension of disbelief that usually keeps us engaged in a theatrical performance–which would have allowed us to forget that these dancers are sweating through their feathered breeches, that their “park” is just a bare stage, that they’re not actually swans–because the mini-ballet ridiculed just that kind of self-delusion.

If Bourne’s dancers were of the highest caliber, they might nevertheless achieve the profound effect he’s trying for. The choreography throughout the show is musical and innovative, and certain passages for the swans in particular border on poetic. But even though this is a modern-dance show (as Bourne himself has been quick to point out), its vocabulary is rooted–fittingly–in ballet. And while Bourne’s dancers may be the cream of the West End crop, they don’t have the technical polish that could elevate his choreography, could make it seem more than just proficient.

Maybe the problem is that serious ballet dancers are generally “tracked” toward companies, and productions like Bourne’s Swan Lake just aren’t on their radar. That’s really too bad. I think there’s a glimmer of hope in the group of exceptionally talented dancers coming out of the competition scene, some of whom–I’m thinking Neil Haskell and Danny Tidwell–have already been experimenting with Broadway. Could an Alex Wong, or a Rasta Thomas, help “fix” this show?