Male swans in “Swan Lake.” That’s all it took in 1995 for director and choreographer Matthew Bourne to create a firestorm of outrage and acclaim in the uptight London dance world. Besides the swans’ sex change, Bourne’s production depicted an all-too-recognizably Windsor prince obsessed with a feral, muscular cob. Could the dance establishment survive a radical, same-sex romance in a normally sacrosanct 19th century Tchaikovsky ballet?
Somehow they could, and on Thursday, Bourne’s company New Adventures returned to the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles to give its 318th performance of his “Swan Lake” right smack at the start of “Nutcracker” season. Bourne’s dance-drama can make you laugh, break your heart and dazzle you with fancy footwork — a spectacular alternative to the soggy sugarplums on local stages. In 1997 the Ahmanson hosted the U.S. premiere of his dance drama, and more of his work has been seen in Los Angeles than in any other American city.
He is a ravenously eclectic theater-dance choreographer, sometimes preserving the structure (though not the content) of the beloved Petipa/Ivanov 1895 “Swan Lake” but elsewhere going for broke with galvanic pop dances perfectly matched to Pyotr Ilyich’s vintage rhythms. Unlike generations of ballet masters, Bourne finds a sense of danger in the swan music that often overwhelms its lyricism, setting up the dramatic conflicts that will be resolved in his shattering final scene. What’s more, his evocation of Windsor rituals and scandals starts as broad parody but deepens and darkens until it fuses with the swan-tragedy — the first and final betrayal in the prince’s hopeless search for love.
The opening-night audience welcomed the company rapturously, and you could hear people chatting at intermission about their memories of the original cast as if the subject were a Broadway musical. What had been a shocking sideshow in 20th century dance is now a kind of mainstream monument but, happily, the sharpness of the royal satire and the intensity of the love story remain intact in this revised, refurbished staging.
There are, however a few losses: no live orchestra and no child-prince, for starters. And given our culture’s evolved discussions about portrayals of women, you could argue that the treatment of the prince’s mother and girlfriend should be more nuanced and sympathetic. On opening night, however, the principals (who will alternate throughout the run) included Nicole Kabera, who played the Queen with a cold but not cruel authority, and Katrina Lyndon, who defined the Girlfriend’s ambition ruthlessly enough to make her more than a figure of fun.
Underplaying his character’s eccentricities, Andrew Monaghan made the Prince so conventionally handsome and appealing you could imagine him in the original ballet. He danced tirelessly, creating a memorable partnership with the predictably triumphant Will Bozier in the dual role of the Swan lover and black-clad Stranger. Fierce in both assignments, Bozier became king of the air every time he jumped and flawlessly integrated character mime with full-out dancing and Bourne’s unorthodox partnering.
The Moth Maiden interlude lampooned the inanities of classical ballet using actual classical technique, with Mari Kamata dithering deliciously on pointe and Alistair Beattie bounding brainlessly at the head of the ensemble. The princesses and their escorts, the fans of royalty, the patrons of a seedy nightclub — this company switched identities and costumes with impressive dexterity.
But pride of place belonged to the members of the swan corps: feathered, bare-chested virtuosos whose sense of menace kept the work from collapsing into short-lived camp. Bourne created the work at a time when a law against promoting homosexuality still existed in England. It’s gone now, but you can see how the swans destroying one of their own — and his male, human lover — speaks to the homophobic violence that still exists almost everywhere.
On Thursday, the lighting design of Paule Constable made Lez Brotherston’s familiar sets and costumes look better than ever — though Duncan McLean’s bleary swan-projections need to be reconsidered. On its programs and posters, the Ahmanson adds “The Legend Returns” as a subtitle to this “Swan Lake.” Legend? Not really. It’s still too fresh and feisty to be tagged with that kind of reverential label. Call it an epic, if you like, still gloriously pertinent and impertinent in the best Bourne tradition.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Jan. 5 (check for exceptions)
Tickets: $35-$145 (subject to change)
Info: (213) 972-4400 or www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 2 hour, 20 minutes (including one intermission)
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