Tuesday, 18 January 2005

Bourne's Swan Lake - Review

When I first heard about Matthew Bourne’s all male version of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, I was in my late teens, living in a small town very, very far from London with only a bunker of a bar, a couple of cruising grounds and a "gay friendly" Sunday night in a club as excuses for a gay scene. Over the years, this show took on almost a legendary aura for me, so when I heard that it was being revived for its tenth anniversary, I knew I would have to go and see it. That was about a year ago, but on Saturday evening the big night finally came…

Swan Lake is one of the major ballets in the classical repertoire. This, combined with a generally held idea that ballet is a little stuffy and stiff necked, might prove a little daunting for some. But if this is your opinion of ballet, Bourne’s version is bound to make you change your mind. There is Tchaikovsky’s music of course; always light and sweet to the ear with the added pleasure of some very famous tunes. The show has the usual signature cartoonish look and Bourne has made it into a very funny and witty pastiche of classical ballet. Something you are not likely to hear very often at the ballet is the laugh of the audience: you do here.

Yes, the show is a little slow to start and you find yourself yearning for some "serious" dancing in the first few scenes, which are little more than an exposition of the situation and are verging on the ponderous. And when the real dancing finally arrives it is not always up to scratch. It is a little lack-lustre and sometimes even scruffy. However, with the various pas-de-deux between the Prince and the Swan, the show finally grows wings and takes off.

The most striking thing about the show though, is what Bourne made of this classic tale just by changing the sex of some of the characters. Although some critics seem to refuse to see the obvious, the show is clearly meant as a metaphor for gay life. The clue perhaps that it is, is in a cameo by a young Quentin Crisp in one of the scenes. All the elements are there. The dominating, yet estranged mother (with those gorgeous frocks!), the loneliness and the depression at not fitting in, the young man trying to fulfil (in vain) his mother’s expectations by dating the first girl he can find, the finding of one’s own kind and the metamorphosis this implies, a therapy inflicted by society to cure the despicable sin, the back stabbing within the “brotherhood”. Of course this is all a little clichéd and it is wearisome to find again that both “gay” characters die at the end. This choice might be questioned. It might have to do with when the show was first produced but the mid 1990’s already had examples of positive gay characters. Perhaps is it simply because of the choice of original show, in which case, this will be seen as an attempt to transcend the usual limitations of gay stories and create a timeless gay tragedy in the lines of any other great heterosexual stories of unhappy love with the added bonus that this one is also actually gay, in the original sense of the word. This eventually is what will leave a positive impression on the audience. In the end, Bourne should probably be applauded for making such a clear statement for visibility to what turned out to be such a wide audience due to the success of the show.

The critic of the Times informs us that Bourne has created something “unlike anything Tchaikovsky could possibly have imagined.” Perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that Tchaikovsky might have imagined something similar, considering he was homosexual but would never have been in a position to make this idea come true. Bourne’s version is probably one of the nicest homage that could be paid to the composer.

Swan Lake has now left Sadler’s Wells but is going on tour. No self-respecting "gay boy" should miss it.

Swan Lake
Music by Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Choreographed and directed by Matthew Bourne


  1. Awesome review. For those who aren't too big on opera, Bourne's Carman is also an amazingly creative interpretation of the classic Carmen through a gay man's eyes.

    Thanks for your well written blog.

    Danny in Dairyland

  2. Danny,

    Thank you for you kind words.

    Unfortunalety I have been able to see Carman but I am sure it is worth seeing. I have seen a couple of other shows by Bourne and they are always very enjoyable.



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