Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "Making Swan Lake Dangerous Again" (on Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake)


making swan lake dangerous again
by Douglas Messerli

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (composer), Matthew Bourne director and choreographer Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake / Los Angeles, Ahmanson Theatre / the performance I saw was on December 10, 2019

In 1995 English dancer and choreographer Matthew Bourne did something quite audacious in the world of ballet by taking the often-stuffy tutu-laden Tchaikovsky ballet Swan Lake into a world of a fantasy about the psychological turmoil of coming to terms with one’s gay sexuality. He was grandly helped by the set and costume design of Lez Brotherston.
      While keeping much of the basic story of the original, particularly the romantic tale of a young Prince falling in love with a swan, by transforming the basic tale into a modern-day story of royalty not so very different from the Court of Queen Elizabeth, he presented the myth through a very different lens. Except for the fact that this young Prince, having daily to face the cold and distant attentions of the Queen (elegantly and often humorously performed by Nicole Kabera in the production I saw), is clearly not the obviously heterosexual Prince Charles, but you might well understand why Australian choreographer Graeme Murphy was tempted to embrace this ballet into the context of Charles’ marriage to Princess Diana.
      Yet Bourne keeps the more mysterious elements of ballet intact, partly by representing the highly-regulated life of the young Prince through a corps of servants, all looking a bit like his disapproving but, nonetheless, sexually active mother, as they bathe the young prince, brush his teeth, and dress him each morning, to which the audience with whom I was attending broke out in laughter.
      The young prince of Bourne’s production simply wants love and seeks it out first with a vivacious woman intruder (Katrina Lyndon), titled in the program simply as “The Girlfriend.” This gauche young woman, clearly hated by the Queen, is certainly no friend and is less a young girl than an outright tart. The Queen, obviously, wants her son to marry someone of his own class, made clear in the attendees of “The Royal Ball” in Act Three. Actually, she is planted into the royal castle by the Queen’s “Private Secretary” (Jack Jones), who hopes to bring down the monarchy and put himself as the Head of State.
      The Prince (Andrew Monaghan) clumsily attends to dance with the intruder, attends a very funny ballet performance, which wittily imitates earlier productions of this same ballet, with his mother, secretary von Rothbart, and his sudden “girlfriend,”
     He even attempts to track her down in a sleazy bar, The Swank, where lusty men and women dance quite licentiously—clearly a world to which the innocent young man is not accustomed. When he finds that even the new girlfriend is completely disinterested in him, he mopes alone at a separate table and is eventually tossed out into the streets by the sailors who inhabit the disco.
     Despondent, he wanders off to a nearby park wherein, on a lake, several swans swim. Bourne has already shown us that the Prince has had nightmares about the swans, and now we witness a sign posted nearby warning visitors not to feed the swans. We can only recognize that the food on which the swans might feed is not bags of fish-chips, but the bodies of male human beings—precisely, after posting a note about his suicide, the Prince feeds them himself as he quickly becomes enthralled with the virile naked torsos and feather covered leggings of Bourne’s leaping and flying dancers.
      The lead swan (Max Westwell), in particular captures his heart, and after a series of teasing and flirting gestures, takes the young courtier into a pas de deux that, in part because of its daring gender shifts, is far more sensuous than anything possible in other Swan Lakes—although we might imagine that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky might have loved it!
      The outstretched inviting hands, always imitating the neck gestures of swans, aare accepted and rejected, while the common male-female lifts of the Prince into the Swans arms represent the former’s transformation into a world of sexual bliss that as strange almost as what Edward Albee describes in his odd 2002 play The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?
     After all, this is not the first time that animals have transformed themselves into animals in order to seduce the human race: one need only to remind ourselves of Zeus’ transformation into a swan in order to impregnate Leda.
      In part, Bourne’s ballet gives the heterosexual world a vision of what it means to “come out,” as the beautiful Prince, now transformed by the male version of the traditional version’s Odette, becomes obsessed with his new lover. Is it at all surprising that he sees the face of the Swan in another intruder into the court, the Royal Ball the Queen has commanded to present numerous international beauties from which her son will have to choose for a proper wife?
     These supposed “beauties,” particularly once the sexual “Stranger” (as in the original wherein Odette appeared as Odile) enters—seemingly a human version of the Prince’s swan-lover—become equally enchanted the man, entering into tarantellas and tango-like entanglements with the man, whom the Prince now shockingly perceives as a kind of reversal of behavior, a “black” swan-like being (dressed in a black waist coat and black leather pants), if nothing else a darker, far more aggressive vision of his gentler new-found lover.

     Seduced all over again, but shocked by the darker aspects of his love, is it any wonder that the young innocent resorts to violence, ultimately killing his “Girlfriend” in the process?
      As in so many such family situations, the sexually “confused” young son is incarcerated in an asylum, looked after by an army of a doctor and nurses, all of whom, as in the first scene, appear to be various apparitions of his dominating mother. Bourne almost seems to be hinting here of gay conversion therapy, which often makes the patient go mad.
      Laid into his overlarge bed by his nurses, the demons of his sexual desires are let loose, the swans coming out, as in a horrified child’s dream, from under the bed itself, even from within the mattress to haunt him. Although the lead swan reappears in an attempt to calm the sufferer, the swan corps turn on both of them, terrifying the Prince.
      Bourne has brought us, as I read it, into a kind of mad gay bar wherein everyone wants a piece of action with the cutest man in the room, which Monaghan clearly is. There are subtle hints here even of The Red Shoes (a ballet in which Monaghan has performed), as the Prince, once he has accepted his longings, cannot escape the consequences of his own open sexuality, dancing himself impossibly into death.

    Here there are no grand jet├ęs, assembles, or even graceful lifts. The sweaty male torsos now shift from the sensual into almost a demand for a swan-orgy. And the only grand leap is the one in which the Prince, utterly exhausted, jumps into death, where he can finally join the lead Swan into an embrace of eternity.
     What we realize in Bourne’s brilliant re-creation of this balletic chestnut is how fresh it can still be and how marvelously accurate it is its conception. Swan Lake, with its infusions of myth and fairy-tale, must have seemed almost dangerous upon its original production—although it was, at first, not particularly popular, and only later came to be seen as a major work of art. But Bourne in 1995 Bourne re-energized it, made it come alive as a dangerous work again. And in the wonderful production which I visited last night, subtitled “The Legend Returns,” we are truly brought back into that magical world where humans copulate with swans, and swans are freed to become almost human.
      Swan Lake, as last night’s audience acclaimed it in their long applause, may be the perfect holiday balletic event. But I warn you, don’t take your young child to this; it is not The Nutcracker.

Los Angeles, December 11, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (December 2019).

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