Flock to see these birds of a feather

by Nobuko Tanaka

At last, the curtain rose on Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake” here in Japan on Feb. 25, eight years after the production premiered at the famed Sadler’s Wells Theatre in North London. The show was a sensation from the moment it opened, quickly transferring to London’s West End, then crossing over to New York where it fascinated Broadway audiences and garnered Tony Awards for best director and best choreography for Bourne.

I myself remember that transfer to the West End in 1996; posters featuring the all-male corps de ballet of swans were all over Tube stations, and everyone seemed to be talking about Bourne and “Swan Lake.” At the Piccadilly Theatre, where it played, there were long queues for standby tickets day after day. During the interval, audience members spilled out of the theater’s small lobby into the streets, drinks in hand, talking animatedly and sometimes even drawing passersby into their conversations.

After so long a wait for such an acclaimed production, it’s not surprising that the media here latched on to this “Swan Lake” as a big event. Mostly, though, it’s been presented as merely a male version of the classic ballet or — even more incorrectly — as a “gay” version of “Swan Lake,” presumably because of all those half-naked male birds. What few commentators have highlighted is that this “Swan Lake” from AMP (Bourne’s company, Adventures in Motion Pictures) is a radical reinterpretation of the classic ballet set to Tchaikovsky’s music, not just a version with male, instead of female, dancers.

In Bourne’s reimagining, the story centers on the agony of the lonely prince, a shift of focus that lays bare the shallowness of contemporary society.

The drama opens with the 14-year-old prince, scion of a royal house not entirely dissimilar to Buckingham Palace, having a nightmare. He tosses and turns in his giant white bed, clutching not a teddy bear but a stuffed toy swan, symbolic — as are the swans in the original ballet — of longing and nobility. As he sleeps, a gallant male swan watches over him compassionately, as if foreseeing his troubled future.

We watch the prince’s unhappy youth, besieged by the paparazzi and enmeshed in the maneuverings of courtiers. This sole heir’s only family is his widowed mother, the queen, but she neglects him for a string of toy boys. A courtier sets him up with a girlfriend, a floozy, but the queen disapproves and the prince sinks into despair. He attempts suicide one night, but is prevented by the appearance once again of the noble swan, Bourne’s version of the gentle Odette from the original “Swan Lake,” that comforts and soothes him.

Then, in the magnificently choreographed third act at a royal ball, the swan’s malevolent, Odile-like doppelganger appears, exposing the studied snobbery of high society as he charms all the noblewomen and then seduces the prince himself. Finally, this rampant swan even succeeds in bedding the queen, making the heartbroken prince utterly desolate. In the last act, having lost not only his mother but also his will to live, the prince’s sanity ebbs, and he dies. As the curtain falls, we glimpse again the pure little prince we first saw, rising heavenward safe in the arms of his gentle swan.

Throughout this modern masterpiece, London-born director and choreographer Bourne weaves a rich seam of contemporary reference, drawing on the British love of tabloid innuendo and satire directed at the dysfunctional House of Windsor. There’s plenty of English humor, too, with comical episodes poking fun at the prince’s vulgar girlfriend (perhaps inspired by Fergie) gorging on chocolates in the Royal Box during a ballet. And there’s real life, too — a bag lady feeding swans; geeky types clamoring for celebrities’ autographs outside a glitzy ball. Bourne portrays these ordinary people with a warmth and honesty that recalls contemporary society, a world in which, we know, the idealized princes and princesses of fairytale and ballet can no longer exist.

There is energy and realism, too, in Bourne’s choreography. The swans dance ferociously and athletically, rather than with the delicate elegance of the classic “Swan Lake.” It is as if we glimpse the power that propels the swan through water, as well as the graceful glide visible on the surface.

Chiefly, Bourne’s “Swan Lake” has a strong theatrical element, especially in the first act. Unfortunately, though, the Tokyo staging captures this less successfully than did the original London production. For example, a pivotal role in London was that of the butler/private secretary who is the chief architect of the prince’s ruin, powerfully acted by Barry Atkinson as a thoroughly sinister character whose evil intentions were obvious to the audience. In Tokyo, though, as played by Steve Kirkham, the butler’s role seems somehow diminished, and his part in the prince’s downfall less clear.

To be fair, Kirkham’s job is made harder by the Orchard Hall, the sheer size and deep stage of which prevent subtle details from reaching everyone in the far-flung audience. Perhaps for this reason, the Tokyo production seems to focus more on the leading swan, and consequently this is more of a dance program than the original London version.

Undoubtedly, another reason for this is that three of the world’s top male dancers — Englishman Adam Cooper, Spaniard Jesus Pastor and Japan’s own Yasuyuki Shuto — alternate in the role of the swan. At the time of writing, I have seen both Cooper and Pastor, and it is fascinating to observe how the relationship between the prince (played on both occasions by Ben Wright) and the swan changes depending on the dancers. When Cooper dances, the relationship seems almost hierarchical, with the prince looking up to his adored ideal male as if to a revered father. Though all the steps remain the same when Pastor dances, the relationship seems differently nuanced — prince and swan are more like faithful best friends, or even kind lovers. Perhaps further variation will come from the third swan, Shuto, and the alternate prince, Tom Ward. Whatever the pairings are, though, the main theme remains the same: the loneliness of modern life and the difficulty of forming meaningful relationships.

No review of this production would be complete without mentioning Lez Brotherston’s settings, sometimes minimalist, sometimes lavish. It is Cooper, though, who will keep drawing audiences to this “Swan Lake.” His dancing is near-miraculous: with his long arms gracefully evoking a swan’s wings, and his dynamic technique, he is the perfect embodiment of Bourne’s charismatic central character. Certainly the first-night audience showed its appreciation tumultuously — almost the entire house rose to its feet clapping and cheering, detaining the clearly delighted cast for no fewer than 10 curtain calls.