If a moribund West End is looking for someone to shake it to life, it could do worse than turn to Matthew Bourne, the director-choreographer whose thrilling Adventures in Motion Pictures production of “Swan Lake” looks set to be a major event of the season.
Ballet rarely finds a perch in the commercial theater on either side of the Atlantic, but then this is no ordinary “Swan Lake.” Boasting a feathered corps de ballet of bare-chested men and a Prince (Scott Ambler) of recognizably Windsor-era neurosis, Bourne’s vision transforms the Odette/Odile of the Petipa-Ivanov original into a male Swan (Adam Cooper), who appears as a liberated alter ego before the hapless Prince only to unleash pent-up and contrary feelings of desire and destruction.
A cheeky jape? Irreverent, yes; irresponsible, not at all. In the tradition of Peter Sellars’ spins on Mozart or Declan Donnellan’s on Shakespeare, Bourne respects his source material even as he reinvents it; he is the one, after all, who years ago set “The Nutcracker” in an orphanage and retitled “La Sylphide” as “Highland Fling,” set on a Glasgow housing estate. Novel though it certainly is to find a portable phone, designer Lez Brotherston’s “swank bar” or a corgi in this most classical of ballets between “Swan Lake” and Sue Townsend’s recent Royal satire “The Queen and I,” prop-buyers must be keeping local corgi suppliers happy the fresh conceit prompts a very real rush of feeling.
It was not just the knee-jerk response of a built-in claque that brought the opening-night audience instantly to its feet, roaring admiration for leading men Ambler and Cooper like the sudden stars they deservedly are. (William Kemp and Ben Wright will head the second cast as the Swan and the Prince in keeping with dance traditions of alternate performers.) Ironically, it has taken a visitor from another medium to remind the West End of a truism few commercial musicals these days seem to know: Showbiz savvy on its own means nothing without honest emotion to underpin it. Bourne supplies both in spades or, should I say, swans.
The first act draws the biggest laughs, many of which turn out to be comic preludes to the affective jolts to come. The Siegfried figure here is a pampered child-prince caught within a bored and surly household dominated by the Queen (a regally lascivious Fiona Chadwick). An outing to the ballet turns into a hilarious debacle “Royal Rumpus at Toffs’ Gala,” reads a briefly glimpsed newspaper headline as the intentionally ghastly dances on view become a sideshow to feuding in the royal box. The Prince has a new floozy of a girlfriend (Emily Piercy, delicious) about whom mother is not pleased, especially given her tendency to wave at the audience and eat during the performance. (No prizes for guessing a real-life prototype.)
When a night on the town ends with him thrown out on the sidewalk, the Prince finds himself seated by a lake whose sign, “Please don’t feed the swans,” prepares for the entrance of his Swan against the light of a full moon. (The invaluable lighting designer is Rick Fisher.) The two opposites become one the desire here is for fusion, not seduction which leaves a newly restored Prince unprepared for the Swan’s re-emergence after the intermission. There, mysteriously crashing the royal ball, is a louche, leather-clad figure also danced by Cooper whose slick of black down the middle of his head links him to the Prince’s earlier liberator.
Can an image of freedom and release sour so quickly? Or is this newly wanton Swan a projection of the personal demons that an ever-anxious Prince cannot put to rest? The questions drive to insanity a Prince who is soon being devoured by the same chorus of swans he had revered. The ending reunites the Prince and his beloved Swan, but at the crucial cost of a life defined by repression and rejection. No longer the story of the betrayal of another, Bourne’s “Swan Lake” tells of a wounding and permanent loss of self.
The choreographer roots his vision in an astonishing range of movement in no way prepared for by his jolly “knees-up” (as the British say) contribution to London’s current “Oliver!” The first-act ballet-within-a-ballet represents this medium’s pastiche equivalent of the operatic parodies within “The Phantom of the Opera.” And though balletomanes might crave a more sublime introductory pas de deux between the Prince and the Swan, theater folk will feast on a royal ball that encapsulates a whole history of show dancing, tango and flamenco on the evidence here, Bourne could do a great “West Side Story” while moving seamlessly from Fosse to fouette.
With Cooper setting the pace, the male corps de ballet release an aggression in the swans that serves the interpretation well. With all due respect to Disney , this show is about beauty as beast, and it is told with a winged lucidity to make even the most jaded audience member fly.