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By Donald Hutera
Jonathan Ollivier leading the swan corps. Photo by Bill Cooper, Courtesy New Adventures.
Fifteen years ago Matthew Bourne earned a place in the dance history books with his radical rethink of Swan Lake. This exceptionally clever, contemporized take on the familiar tale is still often and erroneously referred to as an “all-male” version of the ballet (women’s roles include The Queen and The Girlfriend). But, as the British choreographer/director has acknowledged, for audiences in the mid-1990s, the first appearance of Adam Cooper as the lead Swan was something of a shock. “Here was this beautiful, wild, lyrical, menacing, and totally masculine creature,” Bourne recalls, adding that, for him, “the shock was that the idea worked.”
And how. Created for his company Adventures in Motion Pictures (now known simply as New Adventures), Bourne’s savvy, sensitive production combined a tragicomic regard for British royalty with a homoerotic subtext. Its initial two-week London run and subsequent UK tour was followed by a record-breaking run in the West End in the summer of 1996 and, two years later, a four-month stint on Broadway, unprecedented for a ballet. En route the accolades practically fell into Bourne’s lap. (He remains the only Brit to nab Tony Awards for directing and choreographing a musical in the same year.) What’s more, after repeated international tours, his inspired notion of a male swan as the liberating love object of a self-tormented Prince has since attained an iconic cultural status. It is this, along with Lez Brotherston’s acclaimed designs (and Tchaikovsky’s brilliant score), that Bourne claims are at the heart of the production’s enduring global appeal.
Swan Lake will fly high in New York once again for a limited run at City Center from October 13 to November 7. This revival marks the freshest look at the show that Bourne’s breakneck creative schedule has allowed him since 1998. He has, he admits, tightened up some of the dancing, toned down the humor, and beefed up the dramatic content without tampering with a piece that has secured a spot as a dance masterpiece.
“There have been some small tweaks to the story,” says Dominic North, one of two company members (the other is Simon Williams) set to dance the role of The Prince. “But the show has always been evolving because each cast that’s performed in it over the years has brought something different to it.” North has been a member of New Adventures since 2004, and Swan Lake was his inaugural production with the company. By way of contrast, there is former Alberta Ballet principal Jonathan Ollivier, who shares the role of The Swan with Richard Winsor. Swan Lake is Ollivier’s initial crack at a New Adventures production, and the first time he’s worked with Bourne. “Matt has a wonderful way of explaining what he wants,” says Ollivier. “He helped me to make my swan very strong and proud, yet also delicate and caring. You really get into a zone when you’re dancing it. It’s a very hard role physically, too.” Little wonder, then, that Ollivier pegs the show as “an emotional rollercoaster.”
Swan Lake was inspired, at least to some extent, by what Bourne has referred to as “our lovely British Royal Family at the time of Charles, Camilla, Diana, and all those characters that were in the press daily as we were making it.” But the performance plunges beneath facile surface satire to limn a portrait of a Prince in psychological meltdown. “The Black Swan character is almost like the dark voice in his head,” Bourne has remarked. The show, he says, “moves people, making them feel very deep feelings. But there’s also a lot of humor in it.” That’s one of several aspects of his Swan Lake that surprises audiences who are discovering it anew. “It’s very different from the classical version, but maybe not as different as some might think.” —Donald Hutera