Swans have preened, yearned, suffered and died on ballet stages for more than 130 years, to Tchaikovsky’s florid, irresistible score. But it took British choreographer Matthew Bourne to reveal them in all their nasty, hissing, masculine glory.
First performed in 1995, Bourne’s “Swan Lake” sets the familiar story in swinging London, where a young prince — whose “refrigerator mother” of a queen uses him as arm candy but refuses his bids for affection — discovers his passion for the powerful birds.
Royal duties weigh heavily on him, and his after-hours efforts to socialize with commoners, dressed only in his union suit, go badly. About to throw himself into a lake, he finds his way blocked by a bare-chested male swan. Soon a whole flock in feathered chaps surrounds him in the moonlight. Men rarely move like this onstage, freed from the necessity to partner girls. As much as the prince desires them, he’s really happy just to dance with them.
So when a gorgeous stranger who resembles his swan turns up at a royal ball, wearing black leather and flicking a whip, his heart leaps, only to be crushed when the hard-drinking sadist seduces every woman in the room, including the queen. Guns are drawn and the prince winds up in the booby hatch.
The production, splendidly turned out by designer Lez Brotherston, resonates at this moment, as too many young gay men die rather than face their own confusion and the world’s hostility. Bourne’s deeply felt conceit triumphs, even as the poor prince expires.