Twelve years after it first exhilarated -- and in some cases, shocked -- theatergoers, Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake has flown back into town, this time for a limited engagement at New York City Center. And there have been no more welcome birds since those swallows returned to Capistrano.
Using all of Tchaikovsky's magnificent score (heard here on recordiing) while drastically altering the plot of the original 19th-century ballet, the inventive British choreographer-director -- working in tandem with brilliant set and costume designer Lez Brotherston -- has created one of the most audacious, visually stunning, and often moving works created for the stage -- all without using a word a dialogue.
The plot's focus here is on an unhappy young British prince (the extraordinary Dominic North). He receives little maternal affection from his mother (the stunning Nina Goldman) -- who nonetheless has no trouble dallying with young men; he feels stifled by need to adhere to the traditions of the monarchy; and he's clearly less-than-comfortable with the advances of a vulgar, fame-seeking young woman (the scene-stealing Madelaine Brennan).
In a moment of despair, he contemplates suicide -- and is rescued by a pack of bare-chested male swans, both frightening and nurturing. The Prince finds a special connection with their leader (Richard Winsor) -- although how overtly sexual it is remains slightly murky until the second act -- and the young man regains the will to live.
The evening's showpiece is the second-act "Royal Ball," in which many of the corps dancers -- outfitted in Brotherston's swanky black-and-white evening wear -- get to display their virtuosity. It's also here where the main swan "reappears" in the guise of the swaggering, leather pants-clad Stranger, who simultaneously seduces both the Queen (in a dazzling red frock) and the Prince, eventually driving the young man to an act of desperation and even madness.
Winsor is the fourth performer I've seen essay this difficult role, and he lacks some of the sheer sex appeal and fluidity of his predecesssors. His dancing, however, is extremely sharp and precise. For his part, North gives dimensions to the Prince I hadn't felt in previous viewings, from the boyish innocence of the earliest scenes to the hopelessness that eventually envelops him towards the end.
Admittedly one's familiarity with the ballet versions of Swan Lake can both be help and hindrance; there are some inside jokes and references that will be more appreciated by aficionados, while some balletomanes may feel Bourne's use of the music pales in comparison to other choreographers. But the most important point is that one need not be a dance expert -- or even been to a dance piece before -- to fully grasp the wonder of this Swan Lake.