Ballet birds

Matthew Bourne’s swans fly in  
By IRIS FANGER  |  April 13, 2006

Matthew BourneIt’s been a decade since Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake burst into the public consciousness, transforming the familiar image of the ballet swan, with her crown of feathers and undulating arms, into a feral, malevolent male bird surrounded by his fearsome flock. Bourne’s stalking swans are on the loose again on a 10th-anniversary tour, which comes to Boston’s Colonial Theatre April 20-23.

It’s no wonder Bourne saw and heard the story differently from Marius Petipa, who created the 19th-century choreography that remains the staple of the ballet repertory. Born in late-20th-century England, Bourne discovered Swan Lake and Tchaikovsky’s music at the age of 19, when he began to take an obsessive interest in dance. By the time the future director/choreographer auditioned for the contemporary-dance training program at London’s Laban Centre, he was 22 years old and rather late for a ballet career. “I was floundering a bit. I loved theater, loved films, but I felt self-conscious using my voice. I started to read about dance history and became obsessed with it. I was seeing dance performances three or four times a week. My involvement was through watching, not dancing,” Bourne says, speaking by phone from the British provinces where his latest production, a dance-theater version of Edward Scissorhands , is on tour.

Bourne completed the dance degree, became a modern dancer, and formed his first company, Adventures in Motion Pictures, in 1987. When he had the chance to produce a Swan Lake , he says, it felt “natural” because “I loved the music. I felt there was a story to tell in the music that hadn’t been told, my personal take on it, using all my love of cinema and theater. I didn’t feel I was the bad boy of ballet — I’m not even from the ballet.”

The traditional Swan Lake is about an enchanted princess turned into a swan by an evil magician. Prince Siegfried comes along, falls in love with her, and tries to break the spell. Bourne turns the Swan Queen into a prince, suggestive of England’s Prince Charles, with a mother who is trying to marry him off. He escapes into the woods outside contemporary London and meets a flock of bare-chested male swans, wearing feathered leggings. “When I was first watching the classical version I felt I was watching a story that was played out in the newspapers every day. It was the mid-’90s, with royal scandals about Diana, Charles, Camilla, and Fergie. I was very conscious that a royal person couldn’t be the person he/she wanted to be.”

“Funnily enough,” he adds, “ever since we’ve run the piece I’ve been in with the royal family. I’ve been to the palace several times. I’ve had lunch with the queen. They’ve all seen it. I think they like the sympathetic portrayal of what it’s like to be them. They ignore the potentially scandalous part. It makes me think they have more of a sense of humor than I would have thought. It’s a definite thumbs up about them for me.”

MATTHEW BOURNE’S SWAN LAKE | April 20-23 | Colonial Theatre, 106 Boylston St, Boston | $37.50-$87.50 | 617.931.2787

Related: Back story, Measure for measure, January 2008, More more >
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