Monday, March 13, 2006

ARTS: Swan Lake

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake is playing at the Ahmanson for a limited 2-week engagement. My husband and I had both seen it when it was here nearly ten years ago, and were eager to see it again. It is a masterpiece of modern ballet, with Bourne's bold, racy re-imagining of the story supercharging the classic with modern sex appeal. No dainty and delicate tutu'd swans in this lake. Instead the swans are all men, bare-chested and with feathery leggings, with a faintly menacing air, and exuding avian testosterone. In this story, Prince Siegfried falls in love with a swan-prince, not a swan-princess. The classic story is further twisted with the addition of Siegfried's mother, the Queen, for whom Siegfried finds he has more than filial feelings of love. Von Rothbart (the evil wizard in the classic story) is here a manipulative Press Secretary for the royal family, who has his hands full with the Prince's unmannerly tart of a girlfriend. In the many-scene first act, this poor screwed-up prince is serially frustrated between the women who reject him and the women he rejects. He ends the act beaten up in a bar fight, but it clears his dance card for the beautiful single-scene second act, which is just him and the swans. The interaction between Siegfried and the flock of swans slowly evolves into a more intimate engagement between the human prince and the swan prince, as they fall in love. The third act is a royal ball, made exciting by the appearance of Von Rothbart's son, the doppelganger of the swan-prince, a Casanova-like character who flirts shamelessly with every woman there, including the Queen. The Prince freaks out in a doubly jealous passion at seeing his mother being seduced by his swan-prince's double, and as the act closes, guns are drawn, and the tarty girlfriend gets killed in the crossfire. Act IV has two scenes, first with the Prince being treated in a psych ward, and the second back in the Prince's bedroom, where the swans reappear, and the flock turns against the lover princes.

If this sounds like a twisted tale of passion, jealousy, and Freudian psychological drama, it is all that. But this sordid story is told throughout with brilliant dancing. Even amidst the "busy" story-telling of the first act, there is some amazing choreography. The Prince being awakened and dressed by a swarm of attendants is a visual delight. And the ballet-within-the-ballet that occurs while the Queen is being thoroughly embarrassed by the Prince's classless girlfriend is a clever and hilarious parody of classical ballet. When the swans come out in the second act, one scarcely wants to blink as the flock flies and swims around the stage, and Siegfried and the Swan-Prince do a gorgeous pas de deux, alternating between romantic engagement and struggle for dominance. In the third act, the dance of ballroom dancers is strangely reminiscent of the movements of the swans, and when the young Von Rothbart works the room, the seduction is visual. Act IV Scene 1 in the psych ward is strangely reminiscent of the Prince getting dressed, and Scene 2 is a dark reflection of Act II, as the swans turn violent. The dance interaction between the two wounded princes is distressingly moving.

The sets and lighting provide the perfect compliment to the visual presentation. The sets were surreal and oversized, and reminded me of Jean Cocteau. (The sconces in the ballroom scene, giant hands holding torches, were right out of Beauty and The Beast.) When the Prince goes mental, a harsh low front-light projects giant shadows on the back wall, which the dancers exploit to dramatic effect.

I'd procrastinated getting the tickets until just last week, so we could only get the back of the mezzanine for the Saturday night performance. Those really aren't such bad seats after all for a ballet, where there's a lot of visual complexity that can be appreciated from a longer view. We brought a pair of field glasses to enjoy a few close-up looks, but I found I didn't want them much at all. It was definitely a show worth seeing again, from most any seat you can get.

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