If your idea of Swan Lake involves a delicate Swan Queen and a bevy of quivering swans, you are in for a shock with Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. No, his version, performed live at Sadler’s Wells last year in London and filmed for 3-D distribution and shown in movie theaters on Tuesday via NCM Fathom, is testosterone-filed and harrowing from start to finish, with its cold and conniving court and menacing male swans.
The ballet was a sensation when first performed in London’s West End in 1995 and a huge hit on tour in the U.S. a year later.
Now viewed up close, it is even more shocking. The buzz-cut swans, eyes rimmed with black and foreheads streaked in black to suggest beaks, swarm with the ferocity of dangerous beasts. Our view is so close up that we can hear their heavy breathing and see the glistening sweat on their bare chests.
Some of the shock value comes from the setting: the English court of the '60s and disco era of the '70s. Intrigue, corruption, decadence and jockeying for position comprise only part of the hostile environment; a cold and sexually avid Queen provides yet more frissons.
And then there is the Swan. As performed by Richard Winsor, he is very much an animal, aggressive and sexual when first confronting the Prince in a park. They dance with an edgy eagerness, shifting weight with fluid, expansive lifts that break apart in a flurry of avenging swans.
The encounter—with all its danger and excitement—offers the Prince his first opportunity to break free from his shackles. He leaves giddy with excitement.
But when the Swan—transformed into a sinister Stranger—invades the court, his effect on the Prince changes dramatically. Dominating and impervious, the Stranger takes hold of the entire party, pulling everyone into his seductive grasp from Prince, party goers, and most tellingly, the elegant Queen. The Queen all but swoons. The tension is palpable, the mood frenetic, and the Prince is left confused and desperate.
Back in his huge, empty room, the Prince restlessly fights off the demons in his sleep, only to have the swans emerge from under his bed. This time, the power shifts, with the swans attacking Prince and Swan until the Swan, all bloody, dies, followed by the Prince. Of all the Swans and Princes to die in all the many productions of Swan Lake, this one made you weep.
Bourne’s Swan Lake reinvents the Romantic era for the modern age, giving it the intensity, foreboding and sense of the unattainable that is almost unimaginable in this jaded age. Black Swan offered melodrama; this Swan Lake offered theater at its best.
◊ Margaret Putnam has been writing about dance since 1980, with works published by D Magazine, The Dallas Observer, The Dallas Times Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, Playbill, Stagebill, Pointe Magazine and Dance Magazine.