Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake

I have wanted to see his show ever since I first read about it several years ago. So when I found out it was to be passing through San Francisco on a 10th anniversary tour, I got myself a front row seat for opening night, which was last Wednesday 22nd. I went to the show full of anticipation but also fearing that it wouldn't be good as I was expecting.

Now that I've seen it, I think that I must have spent a good portion of the evening staring up at that stage with my mouth half open. It was more theatrical & emotional than I had expected.

Matthew Bourne starts with the same general dramatic situations as the original ballet, but he tells a much richer story. The dancers all have to be very strong actors as well. It's almost like watching a play instead of a ballet. There were moments, like the confrontation between the prince & his mother after the night at the ballet, when you almost imagine you hear dialog.

From the opening nightmare vision of the swan to the final death scene, the show moves "from strength to strength." I was often kept very busy trying to keep track of all the individual little stories occuring on the stage. The bar scene alone was a miniature play, with each dancer having a very specific character with his or her own story arc.

The now famous male swans really are an amazing sight. When the swan appears in act 2, it's not a stick-skinny girl in a tutu. Instead, the swan is a massive, bare-chested man. There is nothing effeminate or coy about these swans. They are beautiful & powerful. But they are also frightening, aggressive & convincingly non-human. The encounter between the prince & the swan expressed mutual fear & fascination. It was animalistic.

Even though the choreography is completely reimagined, it still references the original, as when the swans enter in a single line that weaves its way down stage boustrophedon-like, or when 4 swans trot on stage for a parody of the Dance of the Cygnets.

& still the production keeps building. In the 3rd act party scene, the tension is palpable when the stranger appears & starts flirting with every woman in sight, at the same time casting stares at the prince. When the prince suddenly replaces the queen as the stranger's dance partner, a 3rd of the audience gasped, a 3rd laughed & a 3rd applauded.

& still the tension builds. I found this 2nd extended encounter between the 2 male dancers extremely wrenching. It alternates between gestures of tenderness & violence, & the situation becomes more & more humiliating for the prince. At one point the prince is cringing on the floor in a fetal position while the party guests point & laugh at him. It was such an unbearable moment that I wanted to shout at them, "Just stop it!" Things keep accelerating until people are pointing guns at one another & finally someone is shot.

& still the show keeps building. When the next scene revealed that the prince was in an asylum, I was already dismayed. Then when I realized that all the nurses were identical clones of the queen, I was as scared & horrified as the prince.

The final scene really brings home the cruelty & beastliness of the story's world. There turns out to be no safe haven even in the fantasy of the swans. The show still has stunning moments to present to us, such as the swan suddenly bursting forth from the bed, as if being born. & then the final tableux, which mirrors the opening scene. We realize that everything leads up to this moment, which is so moving & yet so cruel.

I can't really judge the technical aspects of the dancing. My impression is that the dancing is much looser & less technical than in a traditional ballet, though I was very impressed by all the moves the swans did on one leg. I've tried some of these poses in my yoga class, & they aren't easy!

Music for the production was provided by a minimal pit orchestra that was miked. It didn't sound too bad from where I was, right next to the pit, but I wonder how it was for the rest of the theatre. I heard this same type of miked ensemble when I saw Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker at Sadler's Wells, & I thought it sounded terrible there.

The orchestra played well, & I liked the conductor. His tempos weren't too fast, & he knew where all the climaxes were. There were a few forgivable trumpet bloopers. The principal violinist did a good job with the solos.

It's a stunning show & great theater. I'm so glad I finally caught it. I kept thinking about it days later, & the show became darker & darker in my mind. Sometimes I would look at people & start thinking that we're all just a bunch of cruel animals.

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