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A CurtainUp Review
Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake

Show business and hype are inseparable. All too often a much-hyped show turns out to have feet of clay. But not Matthew Bourne's much hyped reinvented Swan Lake. Its bare-footed feather-knickered male swans send Tchaikovsky's always thrilling musical fairy tale soaring to new heights of visual pleasure. The swan's entourage as well as the royals are as memorable and emotionally accessible and amusing a cast of characters as even the most fanatic ballet fan is likely to haveencountered.

Judged from a theater-goer's point of view Mr. Bourne's smartly re-imagined production of one of the all-time favorite story ballets is a most welcome addition to the Broadway theater scene. At a time when more and more musicals seem to be less and less dance driven, the show's limited run at the Neil Simon Theatre rather than at Lincoln Center or City Center, seems especially timely. True there are no lyrics, but the staging has everything to make this a terrifically theatrical experience, and of course Tchaikovsky's score is gorgeous no matter whether the swans flutter about in tutus or knickers.

That's not to say, this is musical theater instead of ballet. More accurately, it's a ballet production that proves once again that music and dance speak their own language; a language that transcends words to convey story line and character. Whatever you wish to call it -- ballet or musical theater -- it hardly matters. The only ones likely to natter about the identity thing are the Tony Award nominators faced with the question of how to fit this production into the next award lineup. For everyone else, Swan Lake, by any name is a must see that will persuade at least some who claim to hate ballet to dip their street shoes into the world of toe shoes. (Interestingly, a number of the dances by the female members of the cast are done, not in toe shoes, but in medium-heeled pumps.).

So what makes Bourne's reinterpretation so new and different? Let me count the ways.
  1. The number one change is in the casting of the swans. They are now males with painted birdlike foreheads and feathered pantaloons that imbue them with an at once dangerous and erotic aura. The swan who enthralls the troubled young royal hero has a nasty alter ego which is manifested when he crashes a royal ball dressed in leather and proceeds to seduce everybody. Make that every body, from the Queen's to the Prince's to that of the Prince's girl friend. (This high voltage scene is a bit of a dramatic mishmash).

    Building on the trauma of the rich little celebrity child of an unloving and dominating mother, Mr. Bourne has transformed the fairy tale into a Freudian fable . The Prince's yearnings are homoerotic and on one occasion incestuous. (This last leads to another rebuff by Mum who has an active Libido where other men are concerned). Since his deepest yearnings are not so much for sex as for the warmth and embrace of love and comfort, his yearnings are also androgynous.

  2. As you've no doubt guessed from the description of the swan's leather clad persona, the setting has been updated to a distinctly recognizable London, circa 1950 era.. Bourne manages to have a wonderful time spoofing the House of Windsor. A hilariously funny ballet-within-a-ballet scene is also a spoof-within-a-spoof:: The Prince's trampy girl friend snacks and misbehaves in the royal box while watching a camped-up version of the sort of ballet chestnuts disdained by contemporary artists like Bourne.

None of this high concept socio-political satire would work as well as it does without dancers to carry off the central imagery of these swans à la Bourne with acting skills to support the both funny and sad choreography. Fortunately everyone has risen to the challenge. Adam Cooper, who danced the main swan on the evening I attended, is everything his advance publicity promised. He and the swan ensemble are mesmerizing and powerful rather than effeminate males in traditionally female roles. Ben Wright movingly captures the pain and loneliness of a public man whose private life is as devoid of real emotional warmth as the pictures snapped by the paparazzi. His duet with the creature who offers him more affection and warmth than any human has ever shown him is unforgettable. Emily Piercy and Barry Atkinson as the Prince's girlfriend the Queen's private secretary are also terrific.

As for the production values, the scrim with its single swan image that first greets audiences as they take their seats is deceptively simple. It leads us into a stunning prologue that establishes the psychological framework for all that follows: The child Prince (Andrew Walkinshaw) is having a nightmare in his crown emblazoned royal bed. The nightmare is made briefly visible through a flash of the swan behind the window overhead and the Queen Mum shows her true colors with her unfeeling response to the boy's terror.

This is just the first of Lez Brotherston's inventive and varied contemporary high camp and haute couturiere sets and costumes and Rick Fisher's adept lighting. Between Act 1, scene 1's burst of maids, valets, and footmen in black and white preparing the Prince for his round of ceremonial photo opportunities and the denouement back in the Prince's bedroom, the production is packed with fast-changing sets that include: a seedy disco (The Swank -- with the "k" falling off), a ballroom with balcony, the moonlit lake where Prince meets swan and a starkly surreal mad scene when the Prince's pain errupts into a nervous breakdown. Even Brotherton's detail props, like the Queen's handbag and an amusing animated toy Corgi are aptly amusing, as are his colors and Rick Fisher's lighting.

As in most ballet companies, this production has an alternating cast of main dancers (the production notes in the box below list the alternates, with the cast I saw in bold face). Several ballet enthusiasts I know who saw both sets of dancers assure me that neither will disappoint. Pocketbook and ticket availability permitting, it's a show which can easily be seen at least twice.

Swan Lake
Conceived, directed and choreographed by Matthew Bourne
From the ballet by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Principal Dancers (bold face indicates performer seen)
The Swan: Adam Cooper / William Kemp
The Prince: Ben Wright / Scott Ambler
The Queen: Fiona Chadwick / Isabel Mortimer
The Prince's Girlfriend: Emily Piercy
The Private Secretary: Barry Atkinson
The Young Prince: Andrew Walkinshaw
Plus 29 other dancers
Set and costumes design: Lez Brotherson
Musical Director/Conductor: David Frame
Orchestrations: David Cullen
Sound Design: Mark Menard

Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street (212/307-4100)
Casting information for specific performances available at point of purchase or the production's official website--
3 9/26/98-1/23/99; opening: 10/08/98
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer
broadway musicals: the 101 greatest shows of all time
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.

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