Unlike most choreographers, Matthew Bourne really wants you to see his dancers sweat. His version of “Swan Lake,” now on its 10th-anniversary tour and playing as a bonus production at the Ahmanson, is not a dainty ballet, where slender, pretty ladies glide across the stage on tippy toes with arms raised gracefully in the air (unless they’re doing it for a laugh). This is a vital, vibrant, violent “Swan Lake,” where male swans stomp and kick and might even eat their prey. This take on Tchaikovsky’s love story launched the British Bourne as an international star and it remains his signature work, having lost none of its emotional potency since it first came to Los Angeles in 1997.
Ahmanson auds have since seen quite a lot of Bourne’s work, including “The Car Man” and “Play Without Words,” both of which are steeped in the popular culture of film. Bourne also recently co-directed and choreographed a production of “Mary Poppins” that will land on Broadway in the fall, and his version of “Edward Scissorhands” will arrive in L.A. at the end of the year.
“Swan Lake” didn’t necessarily tip off audiences that Bourne was that much of a film lover; this piece doesn’t put forward the same kind of direct homages to famous cinematic sequences as his later work. But it does amply demonstrate his desire to drag the form of ballet — kicking and screaming, if necessary — back into popular culture and away from the purely rarefied.
Bourne is first and foremost a lively storyteller, and in addition to plenty of passion, he brings a great deal of humor to “Swan Lake.” The opening scenes cleverly depict the young prince learning to perform his ceremonial duties, practicing the royal wave while trying not to seem bored to tears.
While his mother, the Queen (Oxana Panchenko), flirts with her citizens — just the slightest extra touch of the chest while pinning on the medal — she lavishes not a hug on her son. Once the Prince is grown up, or at least semi-grown — Simon Wakefield, who portrayed the Prince on opening night, has the perfect, cherubic look of a young man not quite yet comfortable with adulthood — is happy to accept the advances of an ill-mannered but somehow innocent social climber (Leigh Daniels).
Bourne hits multilayered heights of humor with a scene where the three attend a ballet — the tippy-toe, gracefully-raised-arms variety — and our attention is torn between the comic shenanigans both onstage and in their box, where the Girl Friend causes the Queen fits with her stereotypically gauche behavior. When her cell phone goes off, it’s a moment of genuinely inspired self-consciousness that also tells the audience quite clearly how relatable Bourne intends this to be.
Of course, this is just introduction to the real star of the evening, the Swan (Alan Vincent), who appears with his cohorts at the moment the Prince is ready to drown in a lake.
The mesmerizing extended sequence involving the male ensemble, which brings the Prince fully out of his adolescent haze and into a fuller sense of his sexual longing, stands by itself as a significant choreographic achievement. The men, dressed in feathery bottoms by designer Lez Brotherston and wearing nothing at all above the waist, infuse the bird-like movement with a striking blend of grace and physical power.
The second act continues the narrative escalation, as Vincent reappears as the Stranger and seduces the Queen, causing the Prince fits of confusion and jealousy.
The performers here are all quite extraordinary. Given his focus on the underlying passions between the characters, Bourne’s work requires a deep connection between performers — call it chemistry, electricity or whatever. And the perfs in this production, restaged by members of his company, capture that. The smallest glance or gesture contains ripe emotional meaning; a darted eye toward the audience is filled with disdain; a slap on the thigh serves as a warning.
The show hasn’t lost any of its edge in the last 10 years. Gay twists on famous tales can wear off quickly once the novelty element has passed, but “Swan Lake” seems only to have deepened.
What most stands out here as compared to a first viewing some nine years ago is not the surprising vibrancy and sweaty eroticism of the movement, but the depth of the Prince’s emotional agony.