'Swan Lake' Aims to Make Ripples in Tel Aviv

Matthew Bourne’s version of Tchaikovsky’s ballet is a witty encounter between the classic work and issues of contemporary society.

Helen Maybanks

Of the few ballets in the traditional classical repertoire, even fewer have become classics in their contemporary versions as well. One of these is Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake,” which shares with the traditional version Tchaikovsky’s music and the theme of yearning for a love that must be fought for.

The plot of the contemporary version is set in the court of the British monarchy, which Bourne mocks with great wit. The queen (Madelaine Brennan) rules with a high hand. Beautiful and aristocratic, gliding effortlessly through the traditional codes, she is a serial holder of events that glorify her reign. In contrast, her son, the prince (Simon Williams) is miserable, feels suffocated and is wracked by harrowing dreams in his large royal bed, which has a huge crown on the headboard. The worried queen goes to him and places her hand on his forehead to see whether he has a fever – it’s the only measure she knows – but his desperate cry for love is met with a wall of reserve, perhaps of a British character. As in the original version, here too there are balls, these attended by celebrities accompanied by paparazzi. For them, Bourne has created new court dances, performed to Tchaikovsky’s melodies. The movements are fragmented and mechanical, though suggestive hip motions heighten the incongruity between the stately, restrained exterior and an inner sensuality that occasionally bursts out in an age of permissiveness.

At a grand ball, a blonde British girl (Anjali Mehra), a commoner, throws herself at the prince. Her vulgarity is the source of the charm, freedom and sense of liberation she exudes. The prince urges his mother to invite her to the royal box to watch a romantic ballet, and the queen, apparently under pressure from the masses’ modern viewpoints, deigns to agree. There, in theater within theater, Bourne creates a gem of a humorous short dance whose themes of love, death and sorcery are vastly exaggerated, meant to ridicule the early classic versions. The behavior of the occupants in the crowded royal box underscores the difference between stiff “regal” 
behavior and that of the girl, who offers over-the-top reactions to the ballet while she chats on a pink cell phone.

In the next scene, the prince, instead of going out to hunt, as in the old version of the ballet, goes in disguise to a nightclub. It is astonishing to see how Tchaikovsky’s music can be manipulated erotically with the aid of a stripper’s red feathers – on top of which, the prince gets drunk and is thrown out on the street.

Lying on the ground in the dark, he dreams that male swans are emerging from the pond in the park, behind their leader (Jonathan Ollivier). The interplay between the world of dreams and what until that moment was a slice of sarcastic reality infuses the work with the mystery of a contemporary fairy tale. These are swans with bare, shaven, muscular torsos, who, if called upon to act, can be cruel.

In the park, the prince discovers his love for the male swan and his homosexual inclinations, and for the first time is happy. Later, at the royal court, there are balls at which the queen tries to introduce the prince to women worthy of his status, not knowing that he is obsessed with a man. Here, as in the original version, an outside guest (recalling Odile, the sorcerer’s daughter) is brought to the ball, in the person of the same dancer who previously danced the role of the swan to whom the prince vowed eternal love. The guest, who evokes the Russian mystic Rasputin, displays inordinate self-
confidence, makes love to the women and even the queen, and the prince’s heart breaks with jealousy. No longer able to bear the torment, he takes out a pistol, but by mistake shoots the young blonde woman.

The end is set in a lunatic asylum, where the prince is incarcerated. He dreams incessantly of swans, and they come out from under his bed and fill the space around him, like the thoughts that torment his burning brain, until he is driven to commit suicide. Nevertheless, as in fairy tales, there is a happy ending: above the bed we see the pair of lovers, the prince and the swan, in an embrace of eternal love.

This version of the ballet stands out for its surprise-packed choreographic vitality. Bourne has created a direct and exceptionally witty encounter between the classic work and the contemporary society in which we live. At the same time, throughout the production, the traditional version is pervasive as an almost palpable presence that only heightens the pleasure we take in the choreographer’s creativity.

The high-quality production fits firmly into the refined, restrained English ballet tradition, where every detail is illuminated, both in terms of physical execution and the acting demands on the dancers. The gorgeous costumes are contemporary and original, and the stage design is refreshing. It all adds up to an impressive unity. Not to be missed.

Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake” at TAPAC - the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center, Friday at 13.00; Saturday at 16.00 and 21.00