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Manmade Lake

Swan Lake
Dee Conway

Wild Swans: Matthew Bourne's audacious version of "Swan Lake."

London choreographer Matthew Bourne's all-male Swan Lake is the toast of L.A. and soon to open in N.Y. So why won't he bring it here?

By Christa Palmer

Talk in Los Angeles of British choreographer Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake has become as familiar as the Blockbuster blimp which hovers over this city on summer days like a sated tick: "a gay Swan Lake," "spoof of the royal family," "gorgeous, bare-chested men." These elements are unquestionably present, but when they are combined, the American premiere of Bourne's ballet at the Ahmanson Theatre becomes a brilliant event much more substantial than the sum of its skeletal parts.

It's not a perishable example of gay-identity theater, a disposable satire of contemporary royal figures or a campy drag ballet, but rather a homosexual love story which stirs the deepest sentimentality. In doing so, it becomes a truly universal romance, a tragedy which harks to the aching loss we felt as children being read the unhappy ending of some cruel Grimm's fairy tale.

The story bookends in a prince's bed--a nursery for a boy's nightmare in the prologue and the arena of a man's death in Act IV. The surprising tale in between enfolds as follows: A young prince leads a lonely existence when his mother won't show him the slightest bit of affection. The queen's secretary sets her son up with a whorish girlfriend and, after a scene played out in a swanky bar, the drunken prince writes a suicide note and prepares to drown his sorrows--literally.

A flock of swans, dangerous metaphors for the prince's yearning to be loved, suddenly appears and he "sees" a magnificent man-bird who can simultaneously hold him like a child and soothe his terrifying "unnatural" urges. The prince meets the object of his love again at a royal ball, but this time he's a heterosexual man, surly and flirtatious, clad in black leather. In the final scene the swans appear yet again, this time bringing with them a brutal denouement.

With help from Lez Brotherston's period-hopping costumes, Bourne updates the setting to more or less the 1950s and relies upon the original Tchaikovsky score rather than the arrangement used by the 1895 Petipa-Ivanov production that became the basis of this ballet's "traditional" presentations. The production's topical appearance, with its cell phones, disco outfits and Dior-like cocktail dresses, is very comical, but its humor owes more to theater than to ballet; the dancers are first-rate actors.

The men in feather knickers with pale, powdered torsos and fluttering thighs may take some getting used to by ballet purists. In London they left audiences in shock but in Los Angeles were met with loud and wild ovations. With a New York booking likely to follow next spring, when can San Francisco expect to be swooned by London's male squad of swans? After all, San Francisco is the West Coast refuge for those who have struggled with the agonizing plight of impossible love, sexual awakening and defying society's norms, issues which Bourne's interpreted Swan Lake so lovingly portrays.

"We'd absolutely love it to come to San Francisco at some point," says lead swan William Kemp, over the phone in his L.A. hotel room, "but that's up to the management, really. So, I don't think it's planned at the moment because after this, we fly home and start a new production. We start from scratch to revamp Cinderella.

"People keep mentioning, 'Why are you here first and then New York, rather than the other way around?' which is usually the way it is," Kemp adds. "But it's partly because the theater we wanted in New York housed Chicago, I believe, and I think it's hit the roof, so it will be there for quite some time now--so we won't get that particular theater we were waiting for."

"I think New York is pretty much set, actually," Kemp continues. "And it's rumored that Japan is also very interested in Swan Lake and the Australians were quite strong for us to fly over there at some point. So if San Francisco audiences want to see us, we'll be flying around the world, which would not be so bad, not bad at all."

Swan Lake runs through June 15 at the Ahmanson Theater in the Los Angeles Music Center, 135 N. Grand. Tickets are $15­$60. Call 213/628-2772.

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From the June 1997 issue of the Metropolitan

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