In 1995, Matthew Bourne rose to international prominence for his daring reimagining of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, casting male dancers for the corps of swans and lending the story’s themes of forbidden love additional undercurrents of repression and struggles of sexual identity. The ballet forged a creative partnership between Los Angeles’ Center Theatre Group and Bourne when it was first performed at the Ahmanson Theatre in 1997, and iterations of it have continued around the world nearly ever since, including a return to L.A. in 2006.
Now Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake wings its way back to Los Angeles once more, offering audiences the chance to experience its stunning power again, or for the first time. Bourne’s psychological take on the classical ballet lends it a feral energy and pulsing modernity that hasn’t dulled in the 20-plus years since it debuted.
Will Bozier leads the proceedings as an undeniably magnetic Swan/Stranger, commanding the attention of every eye in the room with his sheer intensity. He sweeps from wild animal to tender lover to carnal stranger to protective fighter effortlessly. His swan is dangerous but magnetic, the physical force of his movements making it impossible to forget that in spite of everything, he is a wild, unpredictable animal.
Still, his swan possesses a surprising tenderness that contrasts vividly with his wildly cruel take on the Stranger, a man clad in black leather who swoops into the palace ball and seduces nearly everyone in sight. Bozier enhances his technical precision with a maniacal gleam in his eye and a carriage that oozes carnality. There’s never any question why the whole room can’t resist him.
Andrew Monaghan is his lithe foil as the tortured Prince. Starved for affection, the Prince seeks love in all the wrong places until his life is transformed by the swans. But his joy is short-lived as his feelings drive him to madness, leaving audiences to decide whether it was all the work of his imaginings. The Prince undergoes the greatest physical and emotional journey, moving from stiff and uncomfortable in his own skin to lovesick to mentally undone. Monaghan tracks this transformation with subtle grace, allowing his character’s repression, hunger for love, and duress and desperation to flow through his every move.
But what really makes the production mesmerizing is the strength of its entire ensemble, all of them marvels. They consistently imbue their characters with vivid quirks and distinct features, allowing you to draw pieces of story from each of them. All of this while never losing the cohesion of their ensemble unit. It’s a balancing act of the highest order.
The male corps de ballet that makes up the pack of swans is the true centerpiece. Their physical agility and sheer dominance on the stage draw you in inexorably, until you’re surrounded by a hissing, mesmerizing flock of birds, their humanity superseded by their undeniable physicality. The gender swap remains one of Bourne’s most inventive, provocative, powerful ideas, allowing you to feel the true animalistic nature of these creatures and the danger therein, as opposed to more traditional models of grace and beauty. There is that in spades as well, but their stage presence and execution combined with Bourne’s still flawless, invigorating choreography makes for a showpiece that will leave your jaw hanging open whenever they flock to the stage.
Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake presented the world with a daring idea in the mid-’90s, shifting the focus from the female ballerina to reinvent an old story with a modern lens. Its themes of sexual repression, the destructive power of love, and quest for identity are timeless, and its gender-swapped conceit still feels marvelously fresh, even incendiary. All this is aided by Bourne’s choreographic approach, which blends modern modes of dance with traditional balletic styles.
Ballet can and should be beautiful, breathtaking even — but it’s all the more intoxicating when that beauty comes in unexpected forms, forcefully declaring itself as it knocks you back in your seat. Swan Lake grants the best of both worlds, its traditional, recognizable score paired with an ensemble and story that live best when they make you sit somewhere between admiration and discomfort. Don’t let it fly away without experiencing it. A-
Note: Many of the roles in the production are double or triple cast. The cast reviewed here performed on opening night, Dec. 5, 2019.