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Jack Anderson

Matthew Bourne's Birds


Matthew Bourne's "Swan Lake"
New York City Center, W. 55th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, Midtown
Through November 7, 2010, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m.
Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m.,
Nov. 3 at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Nov. 7 at 3 p.m., $110, $85, $50, $25
Tickets: (212) 581-1212
Reviewed by Jack Anderson, October 30, 2010

Jonathan Olliver and the male swan ensemble. Photo by Bill Cooper

The swans are back. Not just any swans: Matthew Bourne's swans in "Matthew Bourne's 'Swan Lake.'" That title accurately emphasizes that this strange production is unlike any other "Swan Lake;" its male swans certainly bear no resemblance to the melancholy maidens in the classic "Swan Lake" of 1895 by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. Bourne's swans first startled New Yorkers in 1998; seen again as danced by Bourne's company, New Adventures, they remain sexy and spooky.

Bourne's conception of them provides some of the most astonishing theatrical images in many a season. Unlike the gliding, floating, fluttering creatures we know from most productions of Tchaikovsky's ballet, Bourne's swans, stridently macho with their bare chests and closely cropped hair, slice through space with powerful thrusts. When they swoop, their raised arms suggest an awesome wingspread. And their legs and feet resemble weapons. A whole corps de ballet of them descending upon you might make you instantly flee for cover. Alfred Hitchcock would certainly recognize these ominous avians. Petipa and Tchaikovsky might not, although they might well applaud the assertive surging of Jonathan Ollivier who, at the performance I saw, appeared in the double role of the Swan, as the swans' leader is called, and the Stranger, the Swan's sinister leather-clad human alter ego.

Jonathan Ollivier (mid air) and Dominic North. Photo by Bill Cooper

Bourne does not simply give us swans. He also gives us a plot, a plot that does not always remain coherent. Although I saw "Swan Lake" at least twice in 1998, I found I retained few mental images of it other than the swans. And even though Bourne has said he has revised and tightened the current production, I wonder how much of it I shall remember, other than the swan sequences, of course.

Bourne's human hero is a Prince (Simon Williams) stifled by the dreary routine of a court resembling that of the British Royal Family, and there are mildly amusing moments spoofing both court ceremonies and the way some "Royals" try to cut loose. Brought to the brink of both despair and a park pond, the Prince is temporarily rescued by the feeling of liberation from repression he senses in his encounter with the swans and the Swan.

But muddy plot developments follow. I am not certain why the Stranger disrupts a palace party in a loutish manner, or why the swan ensemble turns upon and attacks both the Prince and the Swan who is their leader: by consorting with a human being, has the Swan, perhaps, become a traitor to his social (or ornithological) class?

The drama may be vague. Yet whenever the swans appear, they're memorably scary, not only outdoors when they haunt the lakeside, but also indoors, when they emerge from under the Prince's bed and take possession of him and his room. Matthew Bourne's swans prey upon our imagination, as well.


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