Went to the opening night of Matthew Bourne's "Swan Lake" Wednesday evening at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco. The show is on a tour celebrating the tenth anniversary of its initial production in London. If you don't know Matthew Bourne, you should -- he makes fascinating theater, always with dance at the heart of it. I'm not generally a big dance fan; most ballet bores me, because I love stories and it's a challenge to tell a rich story using only movement and music. In fact, Bourne is really the only choreographer I've felt ever really pulled it off.
SPOILER ALERT! I'll be discussing certain aspects of the show, including its ending. Although the story is a well-known one, if you don't want to know how it turns out, skip the next two paragraphs.
I saw a production of Matthew Bourne's "Swan Lake" about seven years ago in New York, with many of the same cast members who originated the work in London. What makes this a unique "Swan Lake" is that the swans are all played by men. So when the Prince ends up falling for one of the swans, it has a whole different flavor. The show was amazing. It literally moved me to tears. Twice. Early on there is a scene in which the Prince has reached the depths of despair. His mother the Queen enters and in a heart-rending pas de deux, he attempts to connect with her in order to receive comfort -- and she finds ways of avoiding contact. It was a beautiful example of how movement could convey desire and emotion. Then, at the end, even after the Prince died, I didn't cry again -- until a tableau of the Swan holding the boy who played the young Prince appeared behind a scrim, above the lifeless body of the adult Prince still splayed out on the royal bed.
The touring show is an excellent rendition, but it didn't measure up to what I saw in New York. I think there are three main reasons for this. First, I think it would be hard for any production to live up to the memory I have of that evening seven years ago that moved me so deeply. Second, the company overall was more athletic and graceful; they were simply better dancers. But third -- and I think most important -- two key things were changed about the production. First, a boy does not play the Prince in his youth. The same dancer portrays him at age 10 and age 20-something. This lessens the impact of the initial scenes when the young Prince is dreaming and when he is being taught the ways of royalty. And the impact of that final tableau is terribly undermined when its not the small boy being held in the arms of the Swan, but a full-grown man.
The second change was much smaller, but still had a great impact on how the story is experienced. The Prince's descent into depression is indicated partly when he picks up a bottle of liquor and drinks from it. Tonight, he took a swallow, then coughed and set the bottle down. In the production I saw in New York, the dancer first took a small swallow -- as though simply trying to get over the initial burn, then takes two or three more long pulls. It indicated such deep unhappiness, as if the Prince is saying to us, "I must numb myself as quickly as I can manage." A subtle thing, but I think an important one.
Overall, however, if you haven't seen this "Swan Lake," you ought to; it's an electric theatrical experience.