After more than a century of tutus and tiaras, even the most rigid of balletomanes may be inclined to welcome Matthew Bourne’s bewitching new staging of “Swan Lake” as a breath of fresh air. It’s more like a gale-force wind, actually, blowing away a fair portion of the ballet’s mythical plot along with all that white tulle. Instead of the picturesque legend of doomed love between a swan and a prince, Bourne sets the Tchaikovsky score to an intense contemporary psychodrama with overtones both Freudian and homoerotic, dressed up with gaudy doses of comic kitsch. Most famously, the swan in this “Lake” is not a prima ballerina but a strapping, brooding young man, and his darker doppelganger is a black-leather-clad stud who all but arrives on a motorcycle.
If irreverence is the hallmark of Bourne’s style, wit is his favorite weapon. The show begins with the young prince atop an oversized bed dominated by the image of a huge golden crown. He descends to earth on the backs of some of his large cadre of servants, and in a scene that amusingly spoofs the poses and pastimes of latter-day royalty (lots of waving, the occasional christening), we see that it’s not just his bed but his life that’s dominated by the constrictions of royal duty, personified in the icy hauteur of his mother the Queen (Lynn Seymour, who comes by her regal bearing honestly: She’s a grande dame of the ballet world.)
Midway through this opening scene the adolescent prince is transformed into a young man, danced and acted with grace by Scott Ambler, whose loneliness drives the story to its tragic conclusion. Adrift in his palace with only a very conflicted relationship with mama to divert him, the Prince takes to drink, while his mother’s secretary (Barry Atkinson, in the very vague equivalent of the Von Rothbart role) goads him into a disillusioning flirtation with an ambitious vixen in a pink pouf (Emily Piercy, a delightful comic actress as well as a lovely, lithe dancer). At low ebb after an evening of dissipation at a nightclub — the show-stopping scene reveals Bourne’s energetic style at its best and his equal fondness for pastiche at its worst (was the Afro really necessary?) — the prince finally comes upon the swan whose image he’s been haunted by since youth.
Although news that this corps of swans is exclusively male may conjure up images of men mincing in tutus (see Les Ballets Trocadero de Monte Carlo, “Love! Valour! Compassion!”), Bourne confines such easy mockery to a ballet-within-a-ballet spoof — crowd-wowing but heavy-handed — that’s dispatched earlier in the evening (featuring a ballerina who seems to be an homage to Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl’s” own takeoff of “Swan Lake”). These swans, though bare-chested, have an androgyny that’s more animal than human, and their dance has both the awkwardness and grace of the real creatures.
The prince’s fascination with the leader of this corps, danced magnificently by the magnetic Adam Cooper, is hardly erotic. The prince is a damaged soul, haunted by the confusions of earthly desire, who sees in the swan a vision of the freedom that’s denied him, a dream soul unfettered by social and perhaps sexual conventions. It’s a vision that is both enthralling and torturing. When the prince leaps into the swan’s arms and wraps him in an almost fetal embrace, it’s as if he wants to disappear into this unearthly creature.
Only when the swan’s dark double appears in the second act, as the leather-clad sexual cynosure of the royal ball, does the prince’s fascination turn erotic, ending in a burst of violence that seems Bourne’s chief misfire, treading as it does too firmly in Tarantino territory. (And that riding crop is a crass touch.)
Bourne’s choreography melds the occasional traditional ballet movement with a wide repertoire of modern styles. It’s always energetic and entertaining, and often quite beautiful, particularly as executed by Cooper and his swan throng. Most significantly, it’s attentive to Tchaikovsky’s music. But dance aficionados may find a certain surfeit of busy-ness covering occasionally for a lack of invention, and even to this non-aficionado, Bourne’s style occasionally seems too eclectic for its own good.
Eclectic, too, are the design elements, executed with great wit and panache. Lez Brotherston’s set is spare and elegant when it needs to be, and vivid and witty when that’s required. His costumes blithely ignore ideas of period, suiting each character or scene to its own era. The queen’s full-skirted gowns are strictly ’50s; the gold-digging girlfriend’s getups scream ’80s — Lacroix, sweetie! Rick Fisher’s finely detailed lighting has its own moment in the sun, when giant shadows are used to great effect after the prince’s breakdown.
A small-sounding orchestra probably won’t bother the mainstream audiences that will be this eminently accessible production’s bread and butter here in L.A. and on its future Broadway stand. Traditionalists may quibble that Tchaikovsky wrote his music to accompany a very particular tale, but who is to say that the composer, himself troubled by his sexual inclinations, would not be moved to see one of his most famous scores set to a story of a young man’s sexual confusion, a deepening — not cheapening — twist on the original myth of the tragic consequences of thwarted love.