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Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake

An Extravagant Interpretation

If you're familiar with the work of British choreographer Matthew Bourne, you'll know that his theatrical performances are imbued with pop culture references and lavish touches of gay camp. Bourne's done everything from sizzling reproductions of "Carmen" (as envisioned in a 1950s town teeming with sweaty car mechanics, in "The Car Man") to hokey interpretations of fusty ballets like "The Nutcracker". But there are always a few things you can count on from a Matthew Bourne show: famously over the top sets and costumes; scorching gay fantasy with touches of seedy epicureanism; and an unforgettable sense of playful debauchery.

Bourne's version of Swan Lake, predictably, is a stylized and sexually potent stab at Tchaikovsky's comparatively docile 1877 pink ballet. Conceived in 1995, the new version is a modern fable about longing and the redemptive power of love, and is stamped with Bourne's indelible mark of cheekiness and demonic magnificence. Under Bourne's direction, and the immaculate sets and costumes of Lez Brotherston, as well as the musical auspices of conductor Earl Stafford, the show is transformed into a phantasmagoric procession of sound and images, in which the most covert gesture is pregnant with symbolism.

The story is about a young prince (a fey adolescent played by Neil Penlington) who has feverish recurrent dreams of a male swan -- a sexually potent figure with menacing swooping motions who stews with Freudian menace. When the prince seeks consolation and affection from his cool, regal mother, the queen (a frostily poised, Joan Crawford-esque Saranne Curtin), she repeatedly recoils, setting up the motif of the prince's unrequited yearning for the most basic display of love.

The first scene is full of pageantry, the launching of ships, and the dedication of artworks in the prince's name; the ordered choreography of the royal operatives is delightful, but the ennui of ceremonial duties is evident in the prince, who despairs at his mother's sexual advances towards other young men. When the prince is set up with a girlfriend (a lovely, simpering Agnes Vanderpote), a common social climber who serves as a charming counterpoint to His Royally Moody Highness, things seem to be looking up. But when he catches her mingling with the demimonde at a seedy downtown bar, his frustration at his inability to connect with others collapses into an attempt to drown himself in a lake.

The prince's attempt is thwarted when the beautiful male swan of his dreams (a sensual Alan Vincent) emerges from the water. The choreographic precision of the subsequent scenes is astonishing, particularly considering that Bourne is known more for his cyclonic theatricality rather than his dance sequences. The swan's muscled minions -- a troupe of bare-chested, willowy male dancers clad in feathered breeches -- come across as both amusing and regal. But the true mesmerism of the scene lies in the otherworldly heroism of Vincent's swan who exudes a mixture of danger, grace, and control in his feral, beaky stance. The dance between the prince and swan alternates between violence and obsessive attraction, finally culminating in a display of quiet yet exhilarating tenderness. This extended sequence might be foreign to most Bourne aficionados, who are used to quick, impassioned, and fragmentary movement, but it's absolutely pivotal to the emotional and sexual development of the prince. In fact, much of the performance resounds with a certain interiority that belies the drama of the original; even the most heated orchestration is set to moments of reverie and an intensely private apprehension of the sublime.

In the second act, we find the prince has sunk deeper into the bowels of despair, his brief rendezvous notwithstanding. In the most visually stunning scene of the performance -- a fancy ball oozing with slinky aristocrats -- a leather-clad intruder who looks like the swan crashes the party and seduces everyone, including the queen. If Bourne's nouveau ballet is a far cry from the original, this particular scene dispenses with all appearances of daintiness. The intruder's swooping grace and ferocity of expression are matched by the rest of the ensemble -- even the females are predatory.

Soon, the prince descends into a nightmarish maelstrom, and the scene ends in tragedy. The remainder of the performance is hallucinogenic and full of pathos. After being administered with psychotropic drugs, the prince re-experiences his encounter with the swan, but this time, sexual tenderness gives way to cruelty and carnage, and an ending far more universal than one might expect.

Bourne has said before that people have interpreted the swan as a missing father figure or object of unrequited love. In his eyes, however, "It's this thing of someone who needs to be loved, and the heart of the Prince-Swan relationship is just the Prince being held. That's the emotional high point, or at least it should be."

The major fait accompli of this piece, in the context of Bourne's other work, is the splendid vulgarity of his vision juxtaposed against a gorgeous, multi-layered symphonic and thematic backdrop. The force of his dated romanticism mixed in with modern existential abjection is powerful enough so that the otherwise simple premise of Swan Lake becomes a fascinating tableau for enchantment and innermost desire.

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake
runs through April 16th
at the Orpheum Theater
Tues - Sat at 8pm
Wed, Sat & Sun mats at 2pm
tickets, $35- $85
Running time:
2 hours 30 minutes (including intermission)