Arts / Performing Arts

A Swan Lake Worth Flying For — Tracking the World’s Most Famous Ballet Birds

Matthew Bourne's Masterpiece Turns a Classic Upside Down

BY // 01.29.20
photography Johan Persson

WASHINGTON D.C. — Twenty five years ago, classic story ballet had its own black swan event with the debut of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. Set traditionally to Tchaikovsky’s haunting and tragic score, Bourne deconstructed the well-known fairytale of a beautiful, suffering maiden turned into a swan and the prince who loves her.

He switched the swans’ gender and choreographed a dark psychological ballet tragedy focused on a prince imprisoned by royal duties and protocols who finds freedom in the wings of a very male swan.

Eventually winning an Olivier award and multiple Tonys, Bourne’s Swan Lake tore custom asunder, became the happy coda for the film and musical Billy Elliot and the image of its bare-chested, all-male corps de ballet of swans became the new indelible iconography for bird-centric ballets into the 21st century.

Now over two decades later and with new visions and revisions, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake tours again. Unfortunately for most dance lovers, Los Angles, Washington D.C and New York are the only North American stops for this limited migration.

Two decades is a bit before my arts critic time. I never saw the original production, so with years in between tours, I was determined to get a glimpse of such an exotic fowl for myself. As someone who loves to travel and especially loves to travel for art, I decided if these swans refused to fly to Texas, I would just have to take a flight to see them at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.

The following records my field observations of this rarest of ballet birds as it soared along the American East Coast wilds on its journey home.

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  • Post Oak Hotel - 29 Degrees North
  • Post Oak Hotel - 29 Degrees North
  • Post Oak Hotel - 29 Degrees North
  • Post Oak Hotel - 29 Degrees North
  • Post Oak Hotel - 29 Degrees North
  • Post Oak Hotel - 29 Degrees North

Territorial Behavioral Analysis

While many elements of the swan fairytale still remain as an eerie fog across this Lake, Bourne removed most of the practical magic details for a dive into dark Freudian and Jungian psychological depths. There’s no evil wizard enchanting maidens into birds here.

Instead a stifling and ridged palace life grinds a reluctant prince (James Lovell) into a shadowy self. He can barely balance, grounded under the weight of so many Queen-mommy issues (Katrina Lyndon magnificent in her dances of withholding affection). Only in an electrifying drunken variation on despair does his real personality emerge as Lovell leaps and crashes to earth again and again.

Deep into that downward spiral, he happens upon a bevy of swans and finds terror and joy in a brief hand to wing connection with the wild swan king (Will Bozier). Bourne leaves the answer to the audience of what is magic and what the prince’s dark dream.

Singular Ornithological Correctness

For all the beauty of a classic Swan Lake ballet, the delicate and fluid movements of the most powerful ballerinas resemble the rippling lake more than any species of the Cygnus genus. And let’s remember when it comes to birds the males usually feather brighter. But in the talon and claw real world if there’s one flock of avifauna you don’t want to meet in a darken alley it’s probably swans. Bourne’s dancers possess a spirit animal and it’s actual wild, vicious swans.

SWAN LAKE (Photo by Johan Persson)
The swans take flight. (Photo by Johan Persson)

The dancers grand jeté onto the stage bad ass sexy but with all angled aggression. Arms replicate the movements of the most graceful wings but wings filled with power wound so tight they could and do knock a princely bystander flat. Sometimes the dancers arms and hands held along their faces also become beaks all the better to bite and peck like a knife going into flesh. They spend as much time bounding through the air as they do stomping the ground and hissing.

Together this corps looks ready to invade nations and devour outsiders.

Comedy Plumage

In the first act a quick-step footman takes the Queen’s animatronic corgi on wheels for his morning walk. That’s it. Here endeth the review.

OK, the ballet also contains scenes of sharp but somehow loving satire on classic story ballets, including Swan Lake. The royals and their entourage even attend an evening at the ballet depicting an enchanted moth-lady’s star-crossed love for a woodsman, a lovely and hilarious parody of the choreographic and story formula of the fairytale ballet form. Meanwhile, the Prince’s Unsuitable Girlfriend’s social (media) climbing antics steals many a scene. Freya Field somehow makes the girlfriend both scheming and vulnerable with every hair flick and hip sashay.

Mating Dance

Grand story ballets love their even grander party scenes, especially those with royal matchmaking objectives. Bourne keeps the great ball and turns it into a Tchaikovsky fueled royal rave complete with rival princesses and aristocratic cads throw-downs, jealous dance challenges and battles galore.

(Shoutout to former Houston METdance dancer and one of Dance Magazine’s ones to watch, Kayla Collymore who makes her royal presence known as one of the princesses on the prowl at the Queen’s ball.)

Like the original, the swan’s dark doppelgänger, known only as the Stranger in this incarnation, becomes the beguiling midnight party crasher. In his scenes as the Stranger, Bozier enters the royal ballroom with an OG black swan half slitter/half saunter and proceeds to manspread his way across every inanimate and animate surface in the party, be it balcony railing, chairs, tables, the floor, various princesses, the Queen and our fair prince.

The biggest shock of the production comes when the Kennedy Center stage doesn’t melt under the heat produced during the final hallucinatory and violent tango between Prince and dark Stranger.

Wingspan in Final Flight

For all the comedy and color-soaked mayhem, I found myself so caught up in the majesty and dreading the tragedy, I wanted to shout from me seat: fly north you crazy, star-crossed kids. I hear Canada welcomes runaway princes.

Yet, I knew Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake would end in one great sorrowful crescendo much like the original. Human/Swan heaven comes at climatic cost of such exquisite violence of which I’ve never witnessed in classic ballet. Aided by a brilliant artist corps de designers Bourne creates ballet at its most theatrical and turns theater into a masterwork of a ballet.

Every bit worth my own flight to see it, this Swan Lake soars.

Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake concludes its United States tour at the New York City Center with a run that lasts through February 9.

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