Bourne’s ‘Swan Lake’ puts a dance revolution on stage

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

To the delight of the nation’s ballet fans, “Swan Lake” will shortly be gracing the Tokyo summer for two weeks — not in its traditional classical form, but in the new-classic guise of “Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake,” a revolutionary twist on ballet’s most tried-and-true tutu tale.

With its all-male corps of white swans, this trail-blazing work by English choreographer Matthew Bourne has been credited with reconfiguring the whole world of ballet as it has brought innovations of contemporary performance out of the wings and onto the classical-ballet stage.

Before this “Swan Lake” — which since its stunning premiere in 1995 has often been described as “gender-bending,” “witty” and “menacing” — ballet history had flirted with avant-garde innovations famously born of collaborations between Paris-based Ballets Russes and the likes of the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, the composer Igor Stravinsky, the designer Coco Chanel and artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse during the company’s 1909-29 span.

Similarly, Bourne has forged a searing path in the 21st century, following up his “Swan Lake” with other hits including “Edward Scissorhands” in 2005, “Lord of the Flies” (2011), “Nutcracker! — 20th Birthday” (2012) and his twist on Tchaikovsky’s “The Sleeping Beauty” from 2012.

Bourne, 54, typically taps into the psyche of the modern audience — as in “Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance,” which features vampire fairies, immortality and visits to various time periods of dance as it ingeniously depicts Beauty’s century of slumber. Bourne plans to bring that production to Japan in 2016.

The time is ripe in the dance world for ingenuity, Bourne believes. As he told The Japan Times in a recent email interview, “I think dance has changed enormously in the last 20 years. Many of the top British ballet companies are working with the best contemporary choreographers and are producing very interesting work.

“Also, there is much more appetite for all forms of dance — from exposure on TV shows to styles such as hip-hop and street dance that are now coming off the street and into the theater .”

Though many classical dancers and choreographers have successfully moved into contemporary dance after their classical careers — including such stars as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Sylvie Guillem — this recent expansion of the ballet world’s boundaries is now obliging classical dancers to broaden their movement vocabularies earlier.

As James Fayette, a former principal dancer at the New York City Ballet who is now managing director of the artists’ collective L.A. Dance Project, told The Japan Times recently, “Just in the span of my career, from 1990 to 2005, ballet has changed tremendously. We were only doing ballet at first and then gradually mixing it up a little. Finally, we were suddenly asked to do really different movements and my body wasn’t trained for that. I had to learn it on the fly.”

Benjamin Millepied, the founder and artistic director of LADP —which comes to Saitama in autumn — perhaps best represents this modern fusion of the classical and contemporary in dance, having recently been named artistic director at The Paris Opera Ballet. Hence, from October, he will officially straddle both worlds of dance.

Before becoming famous as the choreographer for Darren Aronofsky’s hit 2010 movie “Black Swan,” Millepied — also a former principal dancer with the NYCB — had established himself as an innovator working with contemporary dance and modern media, even while continuing his career as a classically trained dancer.

As Fayette explained, “Following Benjamin’s vision, LADP tries to mimic the spirit of Los Angeles, where collaboration and innovation are really valued. We are incorporating contemporary art, like using the work of Barbara Kruger and Alex Israel. Consequently, we are pulling in a wider audience, and to further the collaboration we’re bringing in fantastic musicians.”

Fayette also cites Millepied’s determination to broaden classical-dance education through ties LADP has forged with The Colburn Dance Academy, a leading L.A. performing-arts center. In particular, the aim is to school young dancers in a wide range of artistic genres and movement styles while keeping their training “informed by a classical ballet aesthetic — (which is) definitely where dance is going.”

From education to the stage, classical ballet is expanding to soar with the times. As Bourne concluded in our email interview, “I don’t see the point of creating a work unless you are thinking about what an audience might want. I want the audience to laugh and cry and have an evening full of surprises.

“Although I like to please the dance experts, I actually make a work for the person who may never have seen a ballet before — who has never heard the story nor the music. That is my job as a director of dance theater.”

It’s a job Bourne does as well, or better, than anyone else in the world — as Tokyo audiences will soon be able to see for themselves.