Bourne, Again: Those Male Swans Are Back at the Lake

I disliked Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake a dozen years ago when it hit Broadway, transfixed the critics and swept the Tonys. Since then it has played on and on all over the world, and now it is back (at the City Center) in a new and improved version, which I don’t like much more than the original.

Everyone knows its “shocking” premise: The poor Prince hates the falsities of the Court (the usual adolescent anti-establishment angst); loathes yet lusts for the Queen Mom (there’s a near-rape–not only incest but lèse-majesté); is uncomfortable with sexy girls in general and in particular with a pushy girl in pink; and finds comfort only with his dear little toy bird. He’s a mess–not only gender-confused but species-confused, as we discover when he encounters a dozen or so big he-swans with gleaming bare torsos and rippling muscles and thick white shag from their navels to their shins. One of them is … Him! Odette himself! And they get it on.

But not until we’ve been dragged through some introductory scenes that look like skits from a bad revue, the first of them an interlude in an opera house in which four butterflies, three monsters and a parody huntsman do a parody dance that comes straight out of British panto. Then the Freudian bit with Mom. Then our boy in “A Seedy Club” that evokes every conceivable nightclub cliché. Then he’s out on the street, roughed up and miserable. And finally, he’s down at the lake, near suicide … when up pops The Swan.

Actually, there are a dozen of them, sexy, scary and aggressive. (No surprise to me, having read in an English newspaper half a century ago–and never forgotten–not only that “swans have been known to attack Scotties” but that “one blow from a swan’s wing can break a man’s leg.” I’ve kept my distance ever since.) The Prince, though, is enthralled, ecstatic. Is it real? A fantasy? A wet dream?

Following (vaguely) the outline of the original ballet, the next act takes place in a ballroom, where the Queen, now alerted to her son’s … peculiarities? … parades a covey of elegant ladies for him to choose among. And, bang, Odile–the false Odette–barges in (he’s in  leather now) and is all over every woman in sight, beginning with the Queen. You could call this scene “The Triumph of Rough Trade.” With that busy pelvis action that’s his specialty, the Swan is pure catnip, and the Prince is in an agony of humiliation and jealousy.

This “black act”–everyone’s in black except the Queen, who’s in red–is the only part of the ballet that has some genuine appeal to it: It’s cleverly staged and it’s energized; there’s a witty dance with the “Princesses,” and the choreography for all the national dances–Spanish, Magyar et al.–is original and amusing. The dance vocabulary is still thin here, but it’s more various than that of the bird sections, in which the guys clomp and thump around with stylized swan gestures.

Act IV: The Prince collapses, is taken to the hospital, medicated and put to bed, where in his tortured dreams he rushes back to the lake (as in the standard version) only to see the real Odette being pecked and thrashed to death (those powerful wings!) by her co-swans; I’m not clear why. In the morning, his mother finds him dead, but don’t worry–there’s an apotheosis, and we see Prince and Swan united forever up in the sky. In other words, it’s the same old story: boy meets bird, boy loses bird, boy gets bird.

That this is all a homosexual retelling of a work we know so well is not a problem–Swan Lake has survived other provocative concepts–but to portray Odette as the aggressor and the Prince as passive is to violate Tchaikovsky’s great score. What’s really disturbing isn’t that the Bourne version is just another iteration of that worn-out trope of a boy waking up to his true sexual identity; it’s that the underlying emotional dynamic is so infantile. It’s not only the toy bird in bed with the Prince, but also that he’s clearly happiest when being picked up and cuddled.

All of which seems to fit smoothly with Bourne’s misogyny: Both of the prominent female figures–the sexually voracious Queen and the sexually voracious bimbo in pink–are presented as threatening. They’re caricatures of women, and so too are the predatory ladies in black in the ballroom scene. Only adolescent boys and menacing swans are allowed real sexual feelings.

This Swan Lake is startling and at times effective; it’s also coarse and at times risible. Overall, it’s as infantile as its hero. I hope that’s not why it has enjoyed so huge a success, but I suspect it may be.

Bourne, Again: Those Male Swans Are Back at the Lake