Blokes of a feather

By Hu Bei Source:Global Times Published: 2014-9-15 16:08:01

Award-winning all-male production of Swan Lake keeps artistry of original at its heart

From September 25 to October 5, the English ballet dancer and choreographer Matthew Bourne's male version of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake will run at Shanghai Culture Square.

Since the production was premiered in 1995, it has become the longest-running ballet in London's West End, and stunned audiences around the world with numerous performances. It also has garnered over 30 international theater awards, including a Laurence Olivier Award in 1996 and Tony Awards in 1999.

Bourne had seen various reproductions of Swan Lake many times by the early 1990s. Each time he saw the show, a desultory idea popped into his head when the character of the prince appeared on stage.

"I had the memory of Anthony Dowell (a ballet dancer from The Royal Ballet) as the prince wandering around in act one pretty much saying, 'No, I will not get married: take her away; I want something else!'" Bourne told New York Times theater critic Matt Wolf last year. "It was that feeling of someone who is yearning for something, which seemed to me a metaphor for someone who is possibly gay or who maybe just wanted a different kind of woman."

It was this feeling that led to Bourne's groundbreaking Swan Lake, which replaces the traditional female corps de ballet with a menacing male ensemble.

A scene from Matthew Bourne's male version of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake Photo: Courtesy of Shanghai Culture Square

In Bourne's opinion, Swan Lake is far more than a romantic love affair involving a prince or princess transformed into a swan, but "must have something much deeper if people consider more about Tchaikovsky's own life and the turmoil and violence in the music of Swan Lake."

Bourne believes the swan is an inherently valiant creature, with wings that are like male muscular tissue in their tension. Male dancers can portray the swans as having formidable force. In Bourne's Swan Lake, almost all the male dancers perform bare-chested to present the swan's masculine power more directly.

However, even more astounding than the change in sex of the performers are the alterations Bourne has made to the original story.

In Bourne's version, the focus falls on the prince, a depressed figure who is bound by the conventions of royal protocol and a distant Cruella de Vil-esque mother. In despair at his inability to find love, he comes to a lake and is on the brink of committing suicide. He meets with a group of male swans in the lake, and his immediate obsession with the lead swan makes him forget his plans to kill himself.

However, the prince falls into depression and loses his mind when he thinks he sees his mother and the lead swan - who has taken human form - expressing their affection for each other at a court ball. He tries to shoot the lead swan, but is set upon and killed by the other swans. The lead swan unexpectedly sacrifices himself in his attempt to protect the prince.

The story's complex themes of homosexuality and maternal relationships have provoked countless conversations among audiences.

"The prince is confused by his feelings,"Bourne said. "There's a lot of psychology here, but I'm not denying there's a sexual element in the story. For gay audiences, for a lot of people, it's a very moving story, as it should be."

A scene from Matthew Bourne's male version of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake Photo: Courtesy of Shanghai Culture Square

Jonathan Ollivier, the British male ballet dancer who will play the lead swan during the Shanghai performances, told the Global Times that the homosexual element is not the most important aspect of the performance.

"The prince is a lost soul and just wants to be loved. And his love (to the lead swan), I believe, is not 'I want him,' but 'I want to be him.' It is more like a paternal love than a romantic love,"Ollivier said.

He added that the most challenging thing about his role is the physical movement, in which he is required to be "gentle and delicate as swans are when they are on the water, and look fierce when they spread their wings. I'm trying to make everything seamless and believable."

Ollivier took on the lead role in Bourne's production in 2009, when he was 32 years old, although he first saw the show at the age of 18.

Jin Xing, the famous Chinese transsexual modern dancer, watched Bourne's Swan Lake more than a decade ago in England. She told the Global Times that it transcends gender.

"Bourne obviously gave a wholly new perspective on the classical ballet and showed his higher and deeper understanding of Tchaikovsky's music," Jin said.

Fei Yuanhong, artistic director of Shanghai Culture Square, told the Global Times that the only thing that Bourne hasn't changed is the music. "In Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky's music is not just an accompaniment, but is a separate whole with abundant emotional connotations," Fei said.

Date: September 25 to October 5, 7:15 pm (2 pm on September 27, October 4 and October 5)

Venue: Shanghai Culture Square


Address: 597 Fuxing Road Middle


Tickets: 150 yuan ($24.41) to 880 yuan

Call 6472-9000 for details

Posted in: Metro Shanghai, Dance, Culture

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