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Bourne Again

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake makes a triumphant return to America even as the busy director prepares the U.S. productions of Mary Poppins and Edward Scissorhands.

Swan Lake
(Photo © Bll Cooper)
The March of the Penguins has nothing on the return of the swans. We're not talking about real-life birds of the feather coming back to Central Park but, rather, those featured in director-choreographer Matthew Bourne's radical re-imagining of Swan Lake. This week, the national tour of the show -- which recently earned raves and attracted sell-out crowds in Los Angeles and San Francisco -- makes its final stop at Boston's Colonial Theatre, April 20-23. (The rest of the tour, which was to have continued through mid-May, has been cancelled.)

Bourne's Swan Lake first captivated critics and theatergoers in the U.S. and England in the 1990s; it won Bourne two Tony Awards and the Olivier Award. Still, Bourne could hardly have foreseen back then that this remarkable "dansical," in which a sexually confused prince dreams about a pack of bare-chested male swans, would eventually gain such strong international acceptance. "I can't believe that it's studied in schools and considered a classic in its own way," says Bourne. "It's really taken on a life of its own. Even I've been taken aback by the response it's gotten on this tour."

The production retains Tchaikovsky's original score but mixes up the ballet's plot in many significant ways. While Bourne admits that most audiences are less shocked by the show's so-called "gay" content than they were a decade ago, "there are still places where people do walk out. I don't necessarily like to upset people, but I do want to surprise them, to get them excited and give them something different. I never want my work to be what you'd expect it to be."

He continues to fiddle with the production, making small tweaks and updates as he sees fit. "It's important to keep it fresh," says Bourne. "I always have new ideas whenever I watch it again, and this tour certainly wasn't the time to just sit back and let it go. So we have some new gags and some new costumes, especially for the princes. Lez [Brotherston, the show's set and costume designer, who also picked up a Tony for his work] felt that it was especially important for their outfits to be up-to-the-minute."

Matthew Bourne
Bourne has spent some of his precious time reworking Swan Lake while juggling several other projects. Currently, he's in the midst of casting the Broadway production of the West End hit Mary Poppins, which is scheduled to begin performances at the New Amsterdam Theatre on October 14. (Bourne is the show's co-director with Sir Richard Eyre and co-choreographer with Stephen Mear). While there has been quite a bit of speculation on the matter, Bourne says that none of the leads of the London production, including American actress Laura Michelle Kelly in the title role and English stage star Gavin Lee as Bert, will be recereating their roles on this side of the pond.

"Broadway should feel its own ownership of the piece, which means casting Broadway favorites," Bourne states. "That doesn't mean big stars, but people Americans can get excited about. We'll also be restaging some of the numbers quite considerably. Yes, we got fantastic reviews in London, but I think we need to raise the bar a little higher and bring a little more depth to the piece."

On the other hand, the British cast of another of Bourne's hit musicals, Edward Scissorhands -- based on the Tim Burton film -- will be coming stateside in the fall for a national tour. That show's widespread appeal has been a bit of a surprise to its creator. "When I first started working on it," Bourne confides, "I thought it was a young person's film and we'd get a lot of Goths in the audience who'd come and maybe throw things at us. I was surprised how many older people have come who know the film, or don't know it but end up loving the piece anyway. It has a lot of warmth."

Once again, Bourne wasn't content to simply recreate the movie onstage. "I had to make something cinematic become theatrical," he says. "It was like walking a tightrope, because you don't want to disappoint fans of the film but you also have to assume that a lot of people will be seeing this story for the first time. And you want everyone in the audience to have some sense of discovery. I wanted to tell the story of why Edward was created, but I also changed the ending. Plus, we've got dancing topiaries which aren't in the film."

As was the case with Swan Lake, Bourne didn't want the piece to be labeled a ballet even though it is one. "I know a lot of people refer it to as a ballet," he allows, "but I am worried that if you give it that label, you turn off 70 percent of the audience." For now, there are no plans for the show to come to Broadway -- its New York engagement is likely to be next spring at BAM, where Bourne's Play Without Words was seen last year -- but that could change depending on audience reaction.

One thing he's confident about is that the show will be well received in the Far East, where it will tour before coming to America. "We're treated like movie stars out there," he says. "People come and scream outside of our hotel. It's fun for a couple of weeks, and it is quite exciting that they take the work so seriously. The Japanese are very good fans for dancers to have."

As for the Trevor Nunn production of My Fair Lady, for which Bourne provided the musical staging, he isn't anxious for that show to hit Broadway until the right leading man can be found. "When you're doing a revival of a show that's been done several times, the right cast is essential," he remarks. "We need the ideal Henry Higgins. Maybe if Ralph Fiennes or Kevin Kline agreed to do it, we'd come over. Or maybe we'll go with somebody younger. Eventually, the perfect person will come along."