From the Archives: When Matthew Bourne Reinvented Swan Lake | Playbill

From the Archives From the Archives: When Matthew Bourne Reinvented Swan Lake Playbill spoke to the director-choreographer about his radical new take on the classic ballet for the October 1998 issue.
Matthew Bourne’s <i>Swan Lake</i>
Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake

To celebrate the centennial of the standard Petipa-Ivanov version of the Tchaikovsky classic, Swan Lake, director Matthew Bourne stashed the tutus and toe shoes and transformed their Odette/Odile into a male swan who seduces the troubled (and also male) Prince. Fine feathers, some have scoffed, but these turned out to be very fine indeed—the object of rhapsodic reviews in both London and Los Angeles, saluting Bourne's audacity.

Yes, he allows, there's a certain lavender hue to all of his work, but to label his piece "a gay Swan Lake" is limiting—to what he wants to achieve creatively and to those he wants to reach commercially.

"Always, in the back of my mind, I knew I was attempting something universal," he says. "Although the show has enormous sexual energy—a sexiness—it's really about someone craving love and affection, almost in a nonsexual way. The Prince is needy. He's no love for his mother, his family. I purposefully gave him a girlfriend in Act I, so it wouldn't be completely a clear-cut thing of 'Oh, he's obviously gay.' He obviously needs some kind of affection, and when the swan wraps him in his wings, it's like all those things he never had from his family. It's something everybody can identify with, and that's why it works. It's a simple thing that everyone feels. It's what gets people."

This, then, is a Swan Lake trying to trickle into the theatrical mainstream. "I hope we get a theatre audience—and not just the dance crowd—because that's what it's aimed at. People who come to see it are not used to dance productions. They see it's called "Swan Lake," they hear it's dance, and they say, 'No, I don't go to that,' so it needs that friend to tell them, 'I've seen it, and you've got to see it' to make them go. I hope they come, and I hope they go away having really had an emotional theatrical experience unlike any they've had before."

Ten years after he saw his first ballet (and six years after his first ballet lesson), this late-blooming ballet master formed his own dance company, Adventures in Motion Pictures. As the name implies, he came to this rarefied world via the mass transit of popular entertainment. He saw the film version of The Sound of Music on his fifth birthday, and that left him with an abiding appreciation of the entire Rodgers and Hammerstein canon—and, by extension, all musical comedy. By the time he was 15, he'd seen A Chorus Line 11 times. A product of Hackney in London's East End, he retreated deeper into film and theatre and was a teen-age autograph hound, bagging Bette Davis, Charlie Chaplin and Fred Astaire. Inevitably, his AMP ventures took on cinematic and/or theatrical casts. He choreographed "The Nutcracker" in an Oliver! -esque orphanage, and his version of "La Sylphide" (retitled "Highland Fling") anticipated "Trainspotting" in its simultaneously despairing and amusing depiction of a Glasgow druggie. His 1992 "Deadly Serious" was inspired by snippets from his favorite Hitchcock flicks. Among the West End shows that engaged his talent were the Stephen Schwartz/John Caird Children of Eden and the Cameron Mackintosh/Sam Mendes Oliver!.

Since becoming a hyphenate -- he is making his Broadway bow choreographing and directing Swan Lake—Bourne has had trouble going back to straight choreography chores, turning down a shot at choreographing The Fix to choreograph and direct a new version of Prokofiev's "Cinderella," which he plopped down in the middle of the London blitzing of '41.

"I really have to feel something for the music, then I have to find the one idea that will make the whole thing work as a new concept. Until I find those two things, I can't proceed. The details come later.

"With Swan Lake I just could visualize it with men. I had a feeling for it. With Cinderella, when I heard it was written during the war, that was the key. Although it's usually presented as a Victorian fairy tale, you can hear the music sounds very filmic and '40s. It has that wartime feel. Putting those two ideas together, I thought, 'That works perfectly because of the feeling of escapism during the war. You went to the cinema to escape.' That's a very Cinderella thing, going to the ball to escape the horrors of war."

This Cinderella may follow Swan Lake to Broadway. "I never thought I'd ever be here," he says. "It was too fantastic a dream to have even considered. I'm constantly surprised by what we're doing."

And he's surprised it's classical music pieces getting him here and not American musical comedy, given his love for that genre and how it shows in his work. "I know why that is, actually. This came about because I was asked to do a musical for Sam Mendes' theatre in London. He said to me, 'Do whatever you want. Find a musical you want to do.' I said, 'Oh, great. That won't be a problem.' Then I realized a lot of musicals I love, I love because of what they already were. They had this thing stamped on them. Sometimes it said Fosse, sometimes it said Bennett, whatever. All the ideas that had gone into those shows were theirs. It's so difficult to wipe that out of other people's minds and put your own stamp on it.

"With Swan Lake it was really the score I was using as inspiration. I could create my own world and my own story. It was like developing a new piece, and that was more creative than imposing my style on something that already had a great style of its own."

Broadway was still a distant dream when Bourne's chorus line of 18 strapping male swans made their splash at Sadler's Wells. The original game plan was a two-week stint there, followed by a ten-week tour, so AMP would qualify for extra subsidized funding--but a member of the opening-night audience with special radar for this sort of thing saw boundless possibilities in the work. "Cameron [Mackintosh] was there on the first night," Bourne recalls, "and he came up to me and said, 'This is fabulous. You've got to do this on the West End. It feels like a musical. It's got all the things that I would expect a hit musical to have.' So we presented it in the West End. He didn't produce it then, as he is now, but he helped us behind the scenes with advice and gave us free management services. He wasn't credited, just thanked. Now, he's co-producing it, since we don't know about Broadway and he does."

Rest assured, Mackintosh knows Broadway when he sees it—even if it calls itself Swan Lake.

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