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Imagine Swans as a Force in Contemporary Ballet

Commentary: Matthew Bourne's re-conceived, well-received take on the classic merely points to reflections of the times.


After making history with a six-month run in the West End commercial theater district of London, Matthew Bourne's daring modern dance "Swan Lake" is doing so well in its seven-week engagement at the Ahmanson Theatre that 4,200 previously withheld seats in the rear mezzanine are now on sale for its last five weekends in Los Angeles.

That's news in a community where the starriest international ballet companies don't risk programming even sure-fire classics for more than a long weekend. And it's sent arts professionals into overdrive trying to explain Bourne's formula for success.

They could start by acknowledging that his "Swan Lake" heralds the triumphant return of passion and narrative to a dance world that has been largely preoccupied with formalist abstraction. And, of course, Bourne has radically re-conceived one of the central female images of 19th century ballet by making all the swans in his version into feral, bare-chested males.

Call it a sign of the times. In 1895, the classic Petipa/Ivanov "Swan Lake" set the seal on a whole dance century dominated by women in pointe shoes. However, by 1995 (the year Bourne created his version), the balance had shifted: Ballet had definitely lost its primacy and most of the great dance stars were men--from Savion Glover in tap to Irek Mukhamedov in ballet and the still active Mikhail Baryshnikov in any number of idioms.

So when Bourne's swans invaded the stage as a force of nature, with their signature movements centered in those bare chests, arms and backs, the innovation claimed "Swan Lake" for both men and modern dance.

Indeed, you can find images of great 20th century male dancers scattered throughout Bourne's choreographic text, starting with the Prologue in which the White Swan appears in a pose drawn from photos of Vaslav Nijinsky in "Le Spectre de la Rose." More Nijinsky turns up later on (there's "Faune" blood in this Swan's veins), plus some vintage Fred Astaire: The passage in which the Black Swan dances the Queen around the ballroom, bracing his foot on tables and swinging her up over the extended leg, comes straight from a Fred and Ginger duet in the film "Carefree."

You don't need to identify such references to enjoy Bourne's "Swan Lake" any more than you need to recognize the very specific public figures depicted in the seedy Swank Bar sequence of Act 1. But familiarity with his multiple frames-of-reference does help you appreciate Bourne's immense cleverness. In particular, a good working knowledge of the Petipa/Ivanov "Swan Lake" reveals how often Bourne's version represents a dialogue between 1895 and 1995.

Like Mark Morris in his groundbreaking "Nutcracker" update, "Hard Nut," and Donald Byrd in his uneven "Harlem Nutcracker," Bourne uses contemporary comedy (including dance parody) to help situate an antique Tchaikovsky ballet in our era. Much of his humor comes at the expense of celebrities, especially members of the scandal-plagued House of Windsor. However he, Morris and Byrd all work hardest at deepening the relationships between characters and the mythic power of the original story lines.

The result in each case generates an intensity that has been increasingly lost in recent, traditional restagings of the source ballets. The Petipa/Ivanov "Swan Lake," for example, used to contrast societal panoramas (Acts 1 and 3) with passionate encounters for the doomed lovers (Acts 2 and 4). Expressive pantomime, processional movement plus adaptations of court and folk dances supplemented pure ballet, creating the two worlds of "Swan Lake" and the Romantic conflict between dream and reality that they embodied.

Over the past quarter-century, however, those worlds and that vision have diminished under the influence of formalism in Russia and neoclassicism in Western Europe and America. In virtually every major traditional production these days, the palace scenes are just corps divertissements and the lakeside scenes bloodless stylistic showpieces: attempts to sustain an exquisite lyricism as long as possible.

The pantomime has vanished to accommodate more dancing, and, worst of all, the heartbeat of Tchaikovsky's score grows ever slower to permit longer balances, greater stretch, more emphasis on spotlighted star glamour.

In Bourne's reinterpretation, however, conductor David Frame and the orchestra honor Tchaikovsky by respecting his tempos, sequencing and expressive contrasts to a greater degree than most ballet companies, while the superb Adventures in Motion Pictures dancers go to the heart of the original story and convince us that love is stronger than death.

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