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A CurtainUp Review
Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake
By Elyse Sommer
The limited run at City Center isn't a case of a show that had its run and then retired waiting for an opportunity to revive it. It's toured steadily during the long pause between its Tony-winning production at the Neil Simon Theater in 1998 and now. Naturally, the dancers keep changing. The dancer ably handling the complex role of the Prince last Friday was Simon Williams while Scott Ambler who was the Prince in the 1998 production at e the Neil Simon is an Associate Director of the current production.
As can be expected, a show this successful is bound to grow over time. According to a Playbill interview with Bourne, he's tightened and added choreography for this return to New York. Bourne says he's toned down some of the humor in the interest of heightening the drama. Given the long stretch between my viewings, I can't pinpoint exactly what he's eliminated, but rest assured, there's still plenty of humor. As for the drama, all I can say is "Wow!"
Since this is essentially the same one-of-a-kind dance drama, the following comments are a revised version of my original review.
The key element of Bourne's vision is of course that the swans are not toe-shoe wearing ballerinas but bare-footed feather-knickered male swans with painted birdlike foreheads that imbue them with an at once dangerous and erotic aura. This re-imagined vision adds enormous emotional power and makes this an unforgettably electric one-of-a-kind theatrical experience.
Don't be fooled by the male swan casting into thinking this is an all-male show. The Queen (I saw Nina Goldman, an ensemble member during the Broadway run and now stunningly effective as an icy yet sensual woman) and the Prince's girl friend (a delightfully over the top Madelaine Brennan) represent the main roles danced by women, none of whom are dressed in traditional tutus and toe shoes.
The male swan casting served as Mr. Bourne's springboard on which to build on the trauma of the rich little celebrity child of an unloving and dominating mother, and transform the fairy tale into a Freudian fable. The Prince's yearnings are homoerotic and on one occasion incestuous. (This last leads to another rebuff by Mum who has an active Libido where other men are concerned). Since his deepest yearnings are not so much for sex as for the warmth and embrace of love and comfort, his yearnings are also androgynous.
The costumes establish a London setting circa the 1950s and amusingly spoof the House of Windsor —- especially in a hilariously funny ballet-within-a-ballet scene. At stage right we have a royal box in which the Prince's trampy girl friend snacks and misbehaves while watching a camped-up version of the sort of ballet chestnuts disdained by contemporary artists like Bourne — thus also making this a spoof-within-a-spoof.
The high drama is generated by the swan who enthralls the troubled young prince but who also has a nasty leather clad alter ego. Richard Windsor, who was terrific as the title character in another Bourne' hit, Edward Scissorhand (review), is riveting as the Swan and as the scary yet sexy Stranger who crashes a royal ball and proceeds to seduce everyone there, including the Queen and the Prince's girl friend.
None of this high concept socio-political satire would work as well if the dancers didn't have the acting as well as dancing skills to support the both funny and sad story and choreography. Fortunately the current cast has once again risen to the challenge. Jonathan Oliver movingly captures the pain and loneliness of a public man whose private life is as devoid of real emotional warmth as the pictures snapped by the paparazzi. The duet between the Prince and the strange feathered creature who offers him more affection and warmth than any human has ever shown him is mesmerizing.
As for the production values, the scrim with its single swan image that first greets audiences as they take their seats is deceptively simple. It leads us into a stunning prologue that establishes the psychological framework for all that follows: The young Prince is having a nightmare in his crown emblazoned royal bed. The nightmare is made briefly visible through a flash of the swan behind the window overhead and the Queen Mum shows her true colors with her unfeeling response to the boy's terror.
This is just the first of Lez Brotherston's inventive and varied contemporary high camp and haute couturiere sets and costumes and Rick Fisher's adept lighting. Between Act 1, Scene 1's burst of maids, valets, and footmen in black and white preparing the Prince for his round of ceremonial photo opportunities and the denouement back in the Prince's bedroom, the production is packed with fast-changing sets that include: a seedy disco, a ballroom with balcony, the moonlit lake where Prince meets the Swan. Towards the end there's a starkly surreal mad scene during which the Prince's pain errupts into a nervous breakdown. Even Brotherton's detail props, like the Queen's handbag and an animated toy Corgi are aptly amusing. If there's one thing that would have made a perfect evening more perfect it would have been a live orchestra.
As people who saw alternating cast members during the 1998 run found them as fine as the ones I saw. Knowing this company's reputation, I'm sure, that whatever the cast lineup is when you go, you won't be disappointed.
Finally, a word as to whether the erotic elements of the dancing should keep parents from bringing children. I think there's enough just plain beauty and aural pleasure for anything too adult to go over the heads of young children, though pre-schoolers with short attention spans, the 2 1/2 hour run time may be more of a problem.