Perhaps the greatest ballet of all time, Ivanov and Petipa’s Swan Lake, to Tchaikovsky’s music, has for over a century been the apotheosis of death-defying, romantic, heterosexual love. Through trial and error, Prince Siegfried wins the love of Odette, queen of the swans – girls cygnified by a wicked sorcerer – and after some lapses and tribulations is united with her in life or death, depending on tinkerings with the choreography. The great prima ballerina Galina Ulanova described Swan Lake as “the most beautiful ballet you could imagine.” But could you also imagine it as a danced homosexual melodrama with semi-nude male swans, a seedy nightclub scene, the outing of a closeted homosexual prince, a palace ball with a pistol-toting final shootout, an insane-asylum sequence, and similar absurdities?
You couldn’t. But the choreographer Matthew Bourne could, in what is now, all too aptly, touted as Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. Not even poor, closeted-homosexual Pyotr Ilyich would claim it as his. The set, by Lez Brotherston, suitably suggests an ornate, tiled bathhouse, inhabited by a mama’s-boy princeling who grows up into a mother-dominated prince. The story, with flashbacks and wet-dream sequences, tells about his fatal affair with what now adds new meaning to the term swan queen, and ends in a way open to various interpretations.
The homosexualization of great heterosexual love stories proceeds apace. Romeo and Juliet has been converted into R&J with a four-schoolboy cast; there have been several all-male As You Like Its (and please, don’t tell us again about Shakespeare using boy actors – under duress); etc. Most of this, characteristically, of British origin. I have no objection to homosexual ballets, whether campy or not, as long as they are new and so conceived; they should not, like cuckoos’ eggs, be smuggled into the nests of other birds, notably swans.
Moreover, among the many rethinkings of Swan Lake I have seen (most notably Balanchine’s), none was as choreographically impoverished as Bourne’s. I wonder whether we are now to look forward to Sleeping Beauty with an Aurelius, Giselle with a Gilbert, and Les Sylphides with all-male sylphs.
This said, the music is still lovely even in David Cullen’s orchestration; some of the Brotherston scenery and costumes, however inapposite, impress; and there is solid dancing from the entire company, headed by Adam Cooper in what used to be the Odette/Odile role but turns now, in Act Two, into a black-clad bisexual ruffian, servicing equally the prince, the queen mother, and sundry others. The most ineffectually effete choreography comes, expectably, in the second-act numbers where men still dance with women, a veritable embarrassment of glitches. My personal advice to Matthew Bourne is “Go jump in a lake”; to the spectator, Alexander Pope’s “Yet let not each gay turn thy rapture move.”