YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Bourne's 'Swan Lake': An Ill-Fated Flight

At heart, the staging is a brilliant but archaic tableau of gay men dying in agony for daring to love.

June 01, 1997|Stephen Farber | Stephen Farber, movie critic for Movieline magazine, has also written on theater for the New York Times and other publications. His most recent book, with coauthor Marc Green, is "Hollywood on the Couch."

There's no disputing the technical brilliance of Matthew Bourne's acclaimed production of "Swan Lake," which caused a sensation in London before beginning the rest of its world conquest at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. This satiric, contemporary riff on royal family dysfunction, complete with male swans and homoerotic pas de deux, is consistently energetic and witty, graced with imaginative choreography and scenic design. It's also a provocative commentary on the psychosexual underpinnings of Tchaikovsky's ballet.

Everyone knows that Tchaikovsky was gay and perhaps obsessed with his mother, who died when he was 14. Weaving these biographical tidbits into a sly pastiche, Bourne re-imagines the Prince as a young man under the sway of his sexually seductive mother; the royal wastrel tries dating women but ultimately becomes transfixed by a powerful male swan who forces him to confront his true sexuality. It isn't farfetched to suggest that this might have been what Tchaikovsky was really dreaming about when he wrote his memorable music. If one interprets the updated ballet as an irreverent critique of the original, it definitely tantalizes.

But it also galls. Beneath its modish trappings, this "Swan Lake" emblazons a bewilderingly retrograde picture of homosexuality. I know that some people have claimed that the new production is not really about homosexuality at all. In a recent interview with The Times, Adam Cooper, the sensational dancer who plays the Swan, said the role represents not a flesh-and-blood lover but an embodiment of the more masculine, assertive side of the ineffectual Prince's own personality. Maybe the ballet is open to more than one interpretation, but the fact remains that Bourne has chosen to highlight a lot of homoerotically charged images and ideas, and it's a bit disingenuous to discount the connections that most audiences are going to make.

As a case history of a gay man emerging from the closet, this "Swan Lake" is reductive, cliched and highly dubious. The key to the Prince's personality turns out to be his incestuous love for his seductive, smothering mother. He even tries to ravish her in one scene and then turns to men to satisfy his frustrated Oedipal longings. This notion of homosexuality engendered by a twisted family romance might have sprung from a Freudian manual of the '50s, and it seems almost laughably archaic.

That's just the first part of the ballet's specious thesis. This "Swan Lake" spins a tragic tale of a man destroyed for attempting to express his repressed sexual impulses. In the first act, when the Prince discovers his true sexuality in his encounter with the Swan, their dance is highly sensual and romantic; the act ends with a thrilling sense of forbidden yet liberating possibilities. But in the second act, when the Prince tries to reveal his sexual identity in the real world, he careens into disaster.

First he becomes infatuated with the wrong person, a common-enough scenario for gays just coming out of the closet. When a black-leather-clad interloper at the palace ball reminds him of his fantasy lover, the Prince recklessly pursues him. The visitor toys with him but then cruelly rejects him and derides him in front of the palace throngs. The public humiliation drives the Prince crazy. He lands in a mental ward, and then in a fervid fantasy, both the Prince and his Swan lover end up dead; the other swans turn on them and assault them savagely for violating social taboos.

For the hapless Prince, the decision to act on his homosexual impulses quickly leads to torment, degradation, madness and death. We've traveled this road before, in the tragic dramas of gay love that were popular in the '50s--the kinds of dramas that Mart Crowley mocked when he had one of the characters in "The Boys in the Band" say, "It's not always like it happens in plays, not all faggots bump themselves off at the end of the story."

"Swan Lake" is a throwback to that era of tortured gay theater. In particular, it recalls one of the most notorious of these melodramas, "Suddenly Last Summer," which ended with a remarkably similar image of a gang of furious young toughs attacking and devouring the decadent Sebastian Venable. That Tennessee Williams play reflected the horror-struck attitudes of its time, yet the new "Swan Lake" is suffused with the same mood of overheated hysteria and the same overwhelming sense of doom.

Los Angeles Times Articles