BWW Review: MATTHEW BOURNE'S SWAN LAKE at The Kennedy Center
When it premiered in 1995, Sir Matthew Bourne's reimagining of Swan Lake took the ballet world by storm. His gender-swapped approach to the traditional production was a stunning choice, and his signature mix of contemporary dance and ballet gave new life to one of the world's most recognizable ballets. And the feather pants designed for his swans became iconic.
Now, twenty-five years later, Bourne has mounted another updated revival, continuing to develop his boundary-breaking work. The (sadly limited) run at Kennedy Center follows a successful run in New York, and is just as exciting for audiences as the original.
The plot of Bourne's Swan Lake does deviate slightly from the traditional Russian ballet. A young Prince is struggling to live up to his mother's expectations - he trails her in duties, restless, and starts dating someone who fails to meet her exacting standards. When he sneaks out to a nightclub to meet his girlfriend after another tense exchange with his mother, he is heartbroken when she rejects him, and even more so when he finds out she has tipped off the paparazzi to his presence. Distraught, the Prince finds himself in a park, where he writes a suicide note and starts toward the lake. His attempt is interrupted by a Swan, along with his flock, who at first attempt to chase him off but eventually accept the Prince among them; the Prince and the lead Swan share a particularly sensual pas de deux, and the Prince leaves the encounter with a renewed outlook on his life. At the royal ball, the Prince continues to try to please the Queen, but distances himself from his unfaithful girlfriend. The ball is interrupted, however, by the arrival of a mysterious Stranger, whose sensuous and dangerous nature is enamoring to all of the women in attendance, including the Queen. The Prince, at first suspicious of the Stranger, then recognizes something of his Swan in him, but he is rebuffed when he tries to approach the man. The Prince then envisions the Stranger dancing with him as the Swan did, but struggles to separate reality from his visions; when he thinks the Stranger is flaunting his flirtations with the Queen, the Prince snaps and lashes out violently. He is institutionalized, but is visited by the swans in his visions once again. However, this time, they attack both the Prince and his Swan, who tries to protect him from the flock. In the morning, the Queen finds the Prince dead in his chambers, but reflected in the mirror, we can see the Swan tenderly carrying the Prince.
Bourne's distinctive choreography is at its best in this production - his usage of traditional ballet mixed with modern dance, jazz, Argentine tango, Paso Doble, swing, and other styles creates a fun and entrancing world. The elaborate theatrical elements add to the immersion for audiences, and the overall effect is a show that is part dance, part theatre, and a completely wonderful performance. The attention to details - from background dancers to set pieces - is immaculate, and the usage of sound is cleverly pointed. While most of the movements (including jumps) are muted, there are a number of specific movements, stomps, claps, hisses, breaths, and slaps that are deliberately audible. The result is quite stunning.
The ensemble pieces with the swans, though, are the most distinctive and noteworthy of the choreography, and with good reason. The numbers, traditionally danced by women, maintain their original motifs and grace, but are performed in a radically different fashion. The male swans do not attempt to emulate the better-known feminine movements, but instead present their own interpretation - their movements are graceful, powerful, masculine, and animalistic (their little movements were quite reminiscent of the swans they were portraying). It's not the Swan Lake you traditionally see, but there's no denying the elegance or power of these swans. The danse des petits cygnes was particularly wonderful, especially since it's such a memorable dance from the original version.
As is common for intensive ballet performances, Bourne's troop has a rotating cast of solid, talented performers. On the night reviewed (January 22), the part of the Prince was played by James Lovell, who skillfully carried the show even as we watched his character's descent into madness. Nicole Kabera's Queen was stunningly elegant and aloof, and was enchanting to watch. And, as he should, Max Westwall stole the show as the Swan and the Stranger; his powerful movements and tender exchanges with Lovell were positively mesmerizing.
Lez Brotherston, who has overseen costume and set designs since the initial run, continues to dazzle. The swans' feathered pants are truly iconic, and rightfully so, but the rest of the costuming was equally well done. I particularly loved the Queen's regal gowns and nightdress, and thought the black shimmering gala outfits were beautiful, particularly since they were similar, but had enough variations to give each member of the ensemble a unique personality. The Prince's simple white outfit was a great contrast to his uniform and morning jacket, and each showed the sides of his personality and obligations well. The Stranger's outfit was fittingly very pirate-like, with leather pants that suited his dangerous aura perfectly. The set was simple and clever, utilizing a bed that doubled as a platform and screens that allowed for beautiful projections (courtesy of Duncan McLean's video design). The perspective on the set pieces was also unique and eye-catching, making it quite interesting despite its simplicity. Ken Hampton also should get tremendous credit for his sound design; the sound at Kennedy Center has been a point of annoyance for a number of performances, but was wonderful for this production.
Although my overall impression is favorable, I will admit to a few sticking points: the fantasy world in which Swan Lake takes place feels slightly jarred by the inclusion of modern touches - while I was somewhat unbothered by the use of a cell phone and cameras (though my companion did take issue with them), the decision to employ guns in the climax rather than swords (which would have felt more thematic) felt just a little off. Also, while the scene featuring an (involuntary) Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT) treatment was beautifully choreographed and performed, it was difficult to appreciate the dancing as I winced at the outdated and frankly horrifying portrayal of the treatment - this was more "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"-style than I was comfortable seeing in a production that, by nature of having cell phones, seems to be set in modern day.
Bourne's Swan Lake has a reputation as a beloved, fascinating, and powerful ballet. The latest production certainly justifies this reputation.
Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake plays at the Kennedy Center through January 26. Information on tickets and accessibility can be found on the Kennedy Center website. Performance run time is approximately two and a half hours with one fifteen-minute intermission. Please note that this performance contains flashing lights, loud gunshots, and references to suicide and electro-convulsive therapy (ECT).