Strange Bird

Adam Cooper has an image problem. “People remember the black trousers and the whip,” he says. “They expect one to be that way.” Blame Swan Lake, as reimagined by British choreographer Matthew Bourne for the quixotically named dance company Adventures in Motion Pictures. Cooper wears this shock gear for his scene as a character called the Stranger, who appears, as it happens, in just one act.

“The Stranger takes whatever he wants and is allowed to,” the dancer remarks in a light, gentle tenor. “He’s totally different from me – I get what I’m given; I don’t fight for anything, hugely.” When the Stranger crashes a palace ball, farewell, decorum! In a flash, the entire court – male and female, young and old – is panting for his favors.

For the rest of the show, the 27-year-old former principal with the Royal Ballet wears another costume, consisting, all told, of a pair of shaggy white pantaloons, accented with a dusting of white body paint on the torso plus a black strip running from the middle of the forehead to the tip of the nose. In this guise, he leads the production’s by-now-notorious all-male flight of swans. Why does hardly anyone seem to read Cooper as the Swan? Maybe because the Stranger is easy to figure, while the Swan is an enigma. “The Swan is much closer to me,” Cooper asserts. “I always think of the Swan as a swan, not having human qualities. But I guess it has. It’s a loving creature. That’s a quality I relate to.”

The traditional Swan Lake, of course, concerns the highly eligible Prince Siegfried, who one night encounters the Princess Odette by the magic lake of her mother’s tears. A wizard’s spell holds her captive in the form of a swan. Only true love can save her, and Siegfried pledges his faith gladly, only to be tricked into betrayal by the wizard’s daughter Odile, who blows the court away with clock-stopping arabesques and 32 knockout pirouettes. She is the classic stranger, and, ironically, Cooper has always thought of her as cardboard. “I’m always disappointed in Odile,” Cooper says. “I’ve never seen one who as a character bowled me over.” (Could his own impact as the Stranger, then, be a case of overcompensation?)

Bourne’s version transplants the story to a contemporary tabloid London. The Prince this time is a soul-murdered slave to duty awfully like Charles who winds up in a park one night in the mood for suicide. Then he sees the swans. He sees them as Bourne sees them – not aloof ballerinas of the animal kingdom contemplating their reflections in the mirror of the water but strong, wild, unpredictable creatures capable of sudden violence. Many viewers think the bond that forms between man and beast in the new Swan Lake is a sexual metaphor. Or perhaps the birds simply embody the majestic sense of self the Prince so pathetically craves. In any case, whatever it is that the Swan gives the Prince, the Stranger brazenly destroys it.

Offstage, Cooper keeps glamour at bay. His hair on a recent sweltering summer’s morning lies in a punkish blond thatch. His clothes – a blue plaid polo, cargo khakis, clunky running shoes – look strictly Kmart. Up close, tough cheekbones and the punchy nose of a boxer overshadow the choirboy smile and delicate jaw. In the theater, though, the face betrays effortless radiance as readily as scintillant malice. The eyes are ice blue: romantic, with serious rascal potential.

He describes himself today as shy, but insists he was a “naughty” child: “Quite young, I blew up a stereo. I pulled knobs off things.” His mother does social work while his father juggles a gamut of musical occupations, from choir leader to nightclub sideman. In his younger days, Adam attended church regularly – though not for the doctrine; he was there to sing.

His professional training began at the Arts Educational School, which offered the standard academic subjects plus a full spectrum of the performing arts. In time, dance won out. Tap to ballroom, modern to ballet, Cooper loved it all. Eventually he transferred to the Royal Ballet School, though he never fell in with the vestals-in-training of both sexes who saw classical ballet as the be-all and end-all. Even as he was blazing through the hypercharged dance dramas of Kenneth MacMillan, he longed for less predictable fare. Adventures in Motion Pictures first called upon him for a fund-raiser. Prophetically, Bourne cast him in The Dying Swan; Cooper danced in black trousers and T-shirt to Saint-Saëns’s rhapsodic melody. Outings like this reinforced a nagging conviction that Cooper would have to strike out on his own. The Royal repertoire was too narrow. “It goes back to my training,” he says. “I see myself as an all-rounder.” Besides, the Royal roster was too big; he wasn’t dancing enough, and when he did dance, Cooper felt strangely invisible. When Swan Lake took off in London, he quietly resigned.

As a free agent, Cooper has starred in a rare revival of Peter Darrell’s full-length Tales of Hoffman with the Scottish Ballet while mounting some new pieces of his own. For the principal dancers, Bourne’s Swan Lake (now previewing at the Neil Simon Theatre and opening October 8) is a killer; Cooper performs four shows a week, Will Kemp the other four. Next year, if all goes well, expect Cooper back on Broadway in Cinderella, the latest Adventures in Motion Pictures project, danced to the Prokofiev score. Another of Bourne’s exercises in iconoclasm, it unfolds against the backdrop of the London blitz, pairing Cooper’s wounded RAF pilot with the Cinderella of his real-life partner, Sarah Wildor, a beguiling soloist with the Royal. In the classics, the roles that would tempt him now are Albrecht in Giselle and Balanchine’s The Prodigal Son. There’s no time to lose. As Baryshnikov and others have done before him, Cooper promises to quit dancing by age 35.

What then? More choreography, maybe. Or conducting, at which he has already tried his hand. And he misses singing. So how about some musical theater?

“No,” he says with great finality. Why not? “I’m very rarely moved in musical theater. Here we are talking, and suddenly, the music starts and I’m gonna sing! … a song!” Cooper shimmies just a little, that light tenor takes on a crooner’s throb, and his eyes flash wild blue mischief. The Stranger has awakened.

Strange Bird