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With Seán Martinfield

Seán Martinfield

Matthew Bourne's SWAN LAKE
The Best of Broadway

By Seán Martinfield

March 27, 2006

"Matthew Bourne's SWAN LAKE" is San Francisco's #1 E-Ride of entertainment fare. In residence at the Orpheum Theatre until April 16th, it is that most rare of theatrical creations - "the opportunity of a lifetime". Following its London premiere in 1995, the first US showings somehow bypassed The City, but managed to hit Los Angeles and New York. So, unless you are prepared to chase it down on the next few wings of its present flight, this is it and not likely of migrating back any time soon. As with our resident SF Ballet, and bearing in mind the now-familiar warnings from such companies as Disney and their evergreen ever-vanishing list of "classics", a production such as this gets slammed into the vault only to be seen again (if you're lucky) after another generation has passed. Even the score's composer, Peter Tschaikovsky, never had a shot at seeing his own work fully realized into what is regarded as the seminal origin of Classical Ballet. Following its 1877 debut and subsequent swan-dive, Tschaikovsky had been two years dead by the time the re-configured version (introduced by the team of Petipa and Ivanov) premiered at St. Petersburg in 1895. That production changed the world of musical theatre and catapulted Ballet to the highest plateaus of artistic expression. Since then, its view of "Swan Lake" has held sway over every other production ever mounted - all changes, including compressions of its 3 Acts into 2, being labeled as "variations". A century later comes choreographer Matthew Bourne and his transfiguration of both book and Dramatis Personae. Ten years since and as of this night's opening, "Matthew Bourne's SWAN LAKE" is tied and berthed beside what shall be forever known as, "The Standard Version".

No matter its vintage, it all begins with composer Peter Tschaikovsky. Everything else is everything else. The bottom line for all successful musical recreation is one golden axiom: Remain faithful to the intentions of the composer. This one wears his heart on his sleeve. The longings of his soul mirror that of all humanity. The messages within his compositions are self-evident. A 19th Century Russian whose music is so pervasive, so quickly recognized, so embedded within American Culture and present within her political and religious observances that even his name doesn't appear in this current "Swan Lake" Playbill. Was that an editorial oversight? Maybe. Or perhaps we have arrived at the point where the name, the man - Tschaikovsky - is simply Public Domain, absolutely synonymous with the title of his ballet, inseparable from the sounds of December Holidays, and whose 1812 Overture celebrating Russian superiority has long reigned as the obligatory musical expression of our own 4th of July. Must be. Not bad for a man reviled for being homosexual. Anonymous though he may be in the Program, what remains startlingly apparent throughout this magnificent production - including the opulent sound of its reduced-sized orchestra under the baton of Maestro Earl Stafford - is the faithfulness to Tschaikovsky's intentions.

"Matthew Bourne's SWAN LAKE" is a tale of faith. Its MO, driving force, operating ensigns and mascots being the comely swan - the creature most praised for its inclination to monogamy and steadfast protection of its beloved; the utmost symbol of unflinching fidelity even unto death. Within Tschaikovsky's music is the lifeblood of longing. Flowing through his imagination are shimmering concepts of everlasting love and images of the Eternal embrace. Focusing on a fatherless and emasculated young Prince, the ugly duckling rejected by the world into which he is born, escaping into realms of the mind best explained by Carl Jung - he wouldn't be the first subject bent on killing himself who then stumbles upon companionship with a smart animal sensing its own Alpha superiority and natural tendencies to bond and defend, to have and to hold, from this day forward.

Ten years after Bourne's premiere, following numerous productions, a bevy of web sites, broadcasts of the video on PBS and its immediate availability through Amazon.com, its cameo appearance in the film "Billy Elliot"- the word has long been out regarding the controlling gimmicks of this particular show. "Swan Girls in tutus replaced by bare-chested men in feathered pants. Dainty heroines dumped for muscular Heroes. It's men-on-men and the testosterone flows like lava." Got it. Don't need another rundown about the choreography. No stratospheric aerial leaps here or en pointe freeze-framed suspensions. Manly and calloused bare feet have shunned the satin slipper, the supporting cast of pretty girls are decked-out in long-skirted haute couture. The challenge and success of the Bourne Academy can be evidenced in the acting skills of its dancers. For this ballet, we turn to the Nature Channel. When confronted or threatened by the unwary human, seemingly graceful feral swans quickly identify themselves as mean and aggressive, nasty hissing creatures that will unhesitatingly advance upon your face and cause bloody serious pain. (Like some dancers I know.) Hence, the resulting style of movement and the absence of those oh-so-revealing flesh colored tights. In other words: Have jockstrap / Will dance.

No matter which version is on the boards at which theatre, whether at the Opening of the Ballet Season or as part of the SHN Best of Broadway series, "Swan Lake" always has been / always will be - a Fairy Tale. Dangerous stuff. No matter how deeply rooted swan-imagery lies within the human psyche or however many volumes it takes to rationalize the convoluted and nonsense-plotlines of the original story - swans cannot morph into humans by day or by night, nor do they test the fidelity of their would-be lovers through Mozartian disguise or Shakespearean deception. Down at the pond, Alan Vincent is the alpha male in this particular Boys Club, all of whom are flying high, wide and handsome. Perhaps a bit beefy and top-heavy for the aerial dynamics of "Classical Ballet", Vincent is the perfect Hercules to the smaller personage of Neil Penlington, the outstanding "Prince" of Opening Night. Turning back pages toward the wild and glamorous "Jet Set" of the 1960s, one can see in Saranne Curtin (the "Queen") the daring of Princess Margaret, the beauty of Vivien Leigh, and the commanding presence of ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn. On the arm of this celebrity diva was the very potent and sculpted Rudolf Nureyev, always in tight leather pants - perhaps the inspiration of Vincent's second character, the dark and mysterious "Stranger" - attractive to everyone, equally awesome in black leather pants and black formal jacket … with tails. Alan Mosley, the "Private Secretary", is not the equivalent of the original story's evil villain, "Von Rothbart". Look no further than to Windsor's "men in grey suits", the manipulators behind the throne, the seemingly invisible male retinue described by ousted Princesses Diana and Sarah Ferguson. In their shadows is Leigh Daniels playing "The Girlfriend" to perfection. We know who she is and what lies in store. In this version, the wannabe Princess is stifled with a bullet, delivered by the man in the suit.

Back at the Palace, having pulled a gun on his mother and her mysterious stranger, our Prince is deemed mad as Mad Ludwig of Bavaria (likewise obsessed with swans) and confined to his Royal Bedchamber. No more suicidal jaunts to the lake. Nevertheless, given the commitment to Tschaikovsky and the climactic resolves of his score, Matthew Bourne draws from a number of traditional endings and fashions the most pleasing and happiest of conclusions. In the fever of his hallucinations, the Prince witnesses the murder of his savior swan by the younger birds that don't accept his parable on "Our Love Is Here To Stay". He dies broken-hearted; his body lies sprawled across the bed on what must surely be a comforter filled with down. Enter the Queen who numbly accepts the apparent reality and exits quickly. As the orchestra drives to the finish, a huge multi-paned glass descends toward the headboard and tilts toward the Prince. Is it a mirror? Or is it a window to Heaven? In its reflected Reality, the young Prince and his Hero swan wrapped in the eternal embrace of love.

Curtain. Bravo.

"Matthew Bourne's SWAN LAKE". Seeing is believing.




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