The following review is based on the December 5th (opening night) performance of Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake” at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, CA.
Twenty-four years later, Matthew Bourne’s revamped narrative of the four-act “Swan Lake” ballet, which first incited the ire of traditionalists in 1995, has become accepted as an essential work of art. Tchaikovsky’s now indisputably genius score went through a similar rite of passage in 1876, and so it’s seemingly a matter of fate they’ve been paired together. The classic love story of time eternal has been turned on its head by Bourne — the director and choreographer — who has refreshingly overhauled the characters and their conditions with an all-male swan squadron and a darkened tale about an all-consuming fixation.
As compared with conventional showings of “Swan Lake,” the Russian composer’s stirring numbers flow out evocatively into the conscious mind just the same but they have taken on a renewed – and perhaps more stimulating – meaning due to the stirring acting and dancing of the multicast performers in this version. The spectacular production is now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre through January 5th, 2020.
The affluent Prince, played by Andrew Monaghan (role is shared with James Lovell), is now a media-obsessed celebrity who is plagued by a profound feeling of emptiness, as he is rushed and meandered from one red-roped premiere to another by his egocentric and unsympathetic Queen of a mother, depicted by Nicole Kabera (shared with Katrina Lyndon) and his Private Secretary, inhabited by Jack Jones (shared with Jonathon Luke Baker, Ashley-Jordon Packer, and Max Westwell). The existential unraveling of the Prince’s sense of self is only ceased by the endearingly enigmatic Swan and Stranger, both of whom are portrayed by Will Bozier (shared with Max Westwell) whose platoon of black-and-white feathered swans, cut from a musclebound granite, transfix with their militaristic discipline. They stare and stalk to assert their territory, pivot their necks, stomp, flutter their arms in a forward motion, put their palms together to simulate a pecking beak, and elevate in a graceful unison upon stepping out of the shimmering lake whence they came. These masculine swans are light off their feet, seamless in denoting a harmonious physicality, but there is also a simmering aggression underneath as they become at once the Prince’s saving grace (especially the head Swan) and, paradoxically, the reason for his debilitating distress. Needless to say, the shockingly visceral culmination of Bourne’s vision is not a sight that will soon leave the mind’s eye.
The creative staying power of Bourne’s “Swan Lake” has ballast in the form of Lez Brotherston’s updated set and costumes, which, among other things, highlight a bourgeoisie opulence amid an eerie grittiness that can be found inside a wild “Swank” Nightclub and a lonely street corner, for instance. Paule Constable’s lighting adds brooding undertones, filling in cracks of hope with an uneasiness that keeps the observer appropriately on edge. Duncan McLean’s projections weave innocuous visuals of flying swans that hint at an untamed madness lurking under the sheer beauty of this ballet. And, not to mention, Ken Hampton’s sound design gives Tchaikovsky’s timeless score a breadth that dutifully and sweepingly encompasses the scenery in Bourne’s reimagined modern oeuvre.
Monaghan’s boyish Prince is so on-point that it comes across like a psychological character study in which a despondent man descends into the subterranean realm of his mind. As naturalistic as Monaghan’s facial expressions are, he further excels in exhibiting an unearthly control over his body. He is so well-practiced that he wields the ability to coordinate the ebbs and flows of energy within himself – which manifests with a great zeal when he is piqued by the Swan, or a dilapidated spirit when he is flustered by it.
The Swan is the panacea to the Prince’s problems, unique in his majesty which coexists with a ferocity that roars right off the stage. Bozier earns a hypnotized attention unto himself with powerful gestures, motions, and jaw-dropping hang time. He is rugged in his depiction of the Swan and yet the audience can’t help but feel that his war-painted face has the answer the Prince has been looking for by way of mannerisms that communicate an appealing sensitivity and understanding. There is nothing dainty about the Swan, nor is he particularly vulnerable, but beyond his rough exterior lie an enlightenment and nurturance that the Prince desperately seeks.
Where the Swan really sends the Prince into an emotional tailspin is in Act III’s Royal Ball scene where, in human form, he becomes a rakish leather-pants-clad seducer with a flirtatious appetite that engulfs the female guests (to the dismay of their male companions) and even the Prince’s own mother, to her son’s chagrin. Bozier’s inscrutable Stranger represents a curiosity at its highest value, eliciting thoughts and inclinations entwined with everything sensual. Bozier’s commanding and carnal dancing conveys a position of control over the proceedings, which wouldn’t work quite as effectively if not for the Prince’s reactions to it.
Furthermore, in the shadowy retelling of Bourne’s gripping “Swan Lake” exists a starkly contrasting handful of characters who provide comic respites to supplement the drama. At the forefront of this is the Prince’s amusingly irreverent Girlfriend who is played by Katrina Lyndon (the role is shared with Freya Field and Carrie Willis). Dressed in an outrageously puffy pink dress in the first half, her capricious and serial faux-pas behavior might seem out of place at first but is actually a key ingredient in offsetting the ballet’s earnestness and tragedy with well-timed, roaring laughs. To this end, the surprise appearance of the royal robot corgi as well as the characters in the Opera House ballet in Act I (including Mari Kamata’s Moth Maiden and Alistair Beattie’s the Nobleman) add a necessary levity that enhances the audience’s experience.
As with any ballet, though, the main attraction here is the choreography which captivates with non-verbal cues that precisely touch on a wide range of emotions. The famous pas de deux sequences, for example, between the Swan/Stranger and Prince in Acts II and III electrify, as do the company of dancers who epitomize the pinnacle of artistic achievement. In combination with Tchaikovsky’s compositions, the ballet exerts its own will upon the audience, who, in turn, feel ferociously alive. There is something inspiriting about hints of primordial fervor and debauchery, held together by the legion of dancers in “Swan Lake” who can be serene and startling at the same time. The lesson here is that, as liberating as it is to yield completely to the rabbit hole of fascination, it is the tool of self-control that moderates our well-being.
Overall, Matthew Bourne’s transmuted “Swan Lake” is better than it’s ever been, thanks to the conscientious creator at its helm whose revolutionary ballet has become more stunning, hypnotic, and immaculate in delineating a remarkably provocative and affecting story through the transformative power of music and dance.
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