“Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake” is back for a month of performances at the Ahmanson Theatre, the site of its 1997 U.S. premiere and its follow-up engagement in 2006. This remarkable revision of the seminal 19th century ballet became a sensation on its first trip here from London. It was called the “gay Swan Lake,” because of its central love story between the Prince and the male Swan, while the ominous corps of grunting, shirt-less, guy swans attracted notoriety and fans.
The ballet gets so much publicity when it comes to town, it’s hard to believe there are dance and theater nerds who not only haven’t seen it, but haven’t heard of it. But in the past few weeks I’ve run into a number of folks who claimed ignorance. Here’s hoping they and a new generation take a look at what they’ve missed.
This “Swan Lake” is undoubtedly Bourne’s chef d’oeuvre. The Ahmanson has become a kind of home-away-from-home for Sir Matthew and has presented at least seven of his other adaptations, including of movies. There have been fine ones (“Play Without Words”), but none has surpassed “Swan Lake.”
His “Swan Lake” is simply one of the most imaginative and thrilling ballet updates I’ve seen. Bourne grasps all the nuance and emotional intensity of Peter Tchaikovsky’s 1877 full-throated score and he matches mime and storytelling to every programmatic musical detail. The dancing swoops and rushes to every thunderous recorded allegro and passionate violin solo. As I watched Thursday’s opening night performance, I couldn’t help but feel that both the composer and Lev Ivanov — the choreographer who created the traditional, iconic swan scenes — would be delighted, instead of scandalized, by what Bourne had dreamed up.
The action takes place in the early 1960s. England’s Prince (Andrew Monaghan on Thursday, Dec. 5) is weak and lonely, fulfilling his royal duties with bored obligation. He’s longing for love and can’t even summon it from his mother the Queen (a stern Nicole Kabera). She’s a cold-hearted stereotype who dallies with the help. Another stock character, the ditzy blond Girlfriend (Katrina Lyndon, an impressive actress) provides comic relief, though, it must be said that all of Bourne’s productions, no matter how dark they become, will have you laughing at some point.
The Swans swim into the story on a lake in a city park, where the Prince was intending to end it all. Will Bozier as the Odette/Odile character reached a new level in this star-making role. (Different soloists alternate throughout the run.) I can still “see” him stalking across the stage and leaping up and outward as though he will never return. He was both effortless and solid, fierce and sympathetic. His face glowered and taunted under hooded eyes, and it was inevitable that all the characters would fall under his sensual spell.
Most importantly, this was a portrayal that was impetuous and unscripted. When he appears as a mysterious Stranger at the royal ball, he ripped off his long black coat and tossed it toward the wings. It landed, instead, high on a cornice, and that one throw-away gesture felt less like a mistake than confirmation that anything might happen onstage. Keep your eyes glued so you don’t miss a thing.
Monaghan was a little more muted, as the Prince, but still affecting. And Bozier brought all the danger, pathos and romantic heat that was necessary. His fellow Swans were equally ardent and proficient. The rest of the cast was near perfect, as well.
Bourne has tweaked elements of this production, but given the length of time since the ballet was last here, one thing stood out. A cheesy-looking digital projection of a swan in flight accompanies the overture. This sleek imagery was not only unnecessary but stylistically incompatible with the rest of the show. A more successful change was Paule Constable’s new lighting designs. The Swans seemed to glow, their chests shimmering with a ghostly incandescence.
The ballet comes to us this time with a pompous tagline – “The Legend Returns.” Ignore that and make your own determination.
“Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake,” Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles, through Jan. 5, 2020. More information here.