Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake” is not your mother’s Swan Lake, and it’s marvelous indeed. A gorgeous reinvention of ballet’s revered classic, the production, in performance by Bourne’s New Adventures company at the Kennedy Center, feels as audacious and vital a piece of art as when it premiered.
The original “Swan Lake,” a cornerstone of classical ballet first performed in the late 19th century, centers on a Prince enamored of an enchanted white swan, originally performed with the polished technique of the Bolshoi ballet. Bourne’s reimagining of the piece, which debuted in 1995, caused a stir by replacing the white swan and her flock with male dancers. But the casting choices represent more than a gender-swap; Bourne turns the tale inside out to tell a story of sexual transgression and self-discovery.
The curtain rises on a young Prince (James Lovell) in the throes of a nightmare where he is tormented by the figure of a swan. The grand opening gives way to a humorous montage, depicting his morning routine—the director’s characteristic flashes of humor show here as the young man steps out of bed onto the backs of willing courtiers and is dressed with the aid of 10 servants.
…feels as audacious and vital a piece of art as when it premiered.
This opening tableau, as well as the successive scene of the Prince and Queen’s (an excellent Nicole Kabera) repetitive royal duties, suggest a life on rails. Lez Brotherston’s pristine white set made of stone and wood, contrasted with the chic black attire of the royal court, underscores the starkness and rigidity of the young Royal’s life.
Emotions are as big and bold as the show’s design choices, part of Bourne’s characteristic style of glamorous melodrama. Currents of feeling roil throughout the show, especially through the Prince. James Lovell emphasizes the character’s vulnerability, and his yearning for love and compassion from his mother, a distant figure who feeds her own loneliness through various amours. A promising connection with a gauche, but lively, young woman (Katrina Lyndon), entices the Prince, but ends prematurely in disillusionment, moving towards despair.
Then enters a swan.
The Prince’s encounter with the Swan (Max Westwell), and his flock, is a riveting centerpiece. The masculine choreography of the swans can be aggressive and intimidating, as they leap, crouch and hiss; Brotherston’s costumes create an iconic, almost pagan, look for the flock. Their bold movements pair well with the grandiosity of Tsaichovsky’s score.
Max Westwell is phenomenal as the Swan himself. A powerful and striking dancer, he captures the capriciousness and mystery of the character, who both invites and menaces the Prince. Their pas de deux is a captivating, complicated push-pull.
This “Swan Lake” discards the simple good/evil duality of the original, to reach for something more interesting and transgressive. The Swan is not perfectly pure or good, and it’s unclear if he’s magical a dream, or something else. Like the source material, which contrasts the purely good Odette with the sinister Odile, the Swan’s doppelgänger arrives in the second act, sewing sexual chaos at the royal ball.
The production is also notable for its three-dimensional treatment of women and sexuality. Other of Bourne’s ballets, including “Cinderella” and “The Red Shoes,” demonstrate influences from 1940s cinema, which featured screen dames—played by the likes of Joan Crawford—whose sexuality was often frustrated by societal expectations. Bourne does not treat the Queen’s affairs as a joke or a disorder but points to the societal conventions that limit both herself and her son at the same time. Those conventions ultimately push the Prince to violence, and then to tragedy.
Like this production, several of Bourne’s works, including “Cinderella,” “The Red Shoes,” and “The Nutcracker,” have remade iconic works of dance, with a new version of “Romeo and Juliet” now in performance. After seeing the power his “Swan Lake” still holds, it’s exciting to think where he’ll go next.
Running Time: about 2 1/2 hours with one intermission.
Advisory: Performance uses smoke effects and gunshot effects. “Swan Lake” runs through Sunday, Jan. 26 at the Kennedy Center. For tickets, or more information, click here.