I finally saw Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake! Can’t recall when I first learned about it . . . maybe the ending scene of Billy Elliot? If so it feels a tad late, given the piece won roughly all the awards in London and New York in the mid-1990s (but then again, in the mid-1990s I was living in rural Oregon and not exactly “plugged in” to ballet, let alone one with a gay swan).
Anyhoo, it premiered in 1995 at Sadlers Wells in London and had a revolutionary effect on ballet. Bourne took arguably THE classic narrative ballet off its pedestal and reinvented it: He replaced the flocks of dainty, graceful swans performed by ballerinas in tutus and feathery tiaras with a band of aggressive, wild swans performed by bare-chested men in feathery shorts–and he did it with serious artistry and without turning it into camp, as many people feared. It launched Bourne and his troupe to fame overnight, and it sparked the imagination of many boys and young men who could suddenly see a place for them on stage.
Twenty-three years later, I’m living in London, just up the road from Sadlers Wells theatre, and Bourne has just premiered a reworked version of the ballet. Having not seen the original, I don’t know what exactly changed, though I loved reading in the program notes how different the audition process was: In 1995, it was apparently incredibly difficult to find enough skilled male dancers to perform the swans. In 2018, they received hundreds of audition applications, many from dancers who grew up aspiring to be in this very ballet.
What did I think of it? It was very characteristic of Matthew Bourne in that it was highly narrative, a mix of classical and contemporary styles, and very accessible (in many ways his choreography feels more like something you’d see on Broadway than a classical ballet). It had gay themes but was less gay than I expected. I thought it would be a fairly literal switch from the female swan to the male swan, with the rest of the story pretty much in tact. There was definitely a romance that was poignant and beautiful (and once the black swan shows up, boiled with sexual tension); but it was also complicated and played with bigger metaphors about freedom and and authenticity in a way that prevented it from being “just” a romance between men. The swans were not pretty. Beautiful bodies, yes, but they were big, aggressive, wild and mean, just like real swans would be. The ending was tragic, just like the original. But unlike the original, which has never moved me emotionally, this one left me in tears.