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Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake Struts a Victory Lap at New York City Center

The storied production returns to the Big Apple to end its latest international tour.

Matthew Ball as the Swan in Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake.
(© Johan Persson)

"The Legend Returns," proclaims the program cover. Matthew Bourne's muscular male swans are strutting their stuff once again at New York City Center, where his reworking of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake is back through February 9 to close out an international tour. This is Swan Lake's third tour in the Big Apple since its Tony-winning Broadway premiere in the late 1990s, and its luster hasn't dimmed. It's still just as gorgeous — and just as provocative — as it must have been 20 years ago.

The original Swan Lake, which has been in the dance repertory since its 1877 premiere with the Bolshoi Ballet, follows a prince who falls for a princess turned into a white swan by an evil sorceress. Retaining Tchaikovsky's eternal score (unfortunately, this production's music is recorded) and reconfiguring the plot, Bourne's Swan Lake tells the story of a young British prince (James Lovell) and his sexual awakening at the hands of another man. The Prince goes about his royal duties unloved by his mother, the Queen (a droll Nicole Kabera). Even his would-be girlfriend, a vulgar commoner (the hilariously expressive Katrina Lyndon), is just for show, it turns out. At the end of his emotional rope, the Prince contemplates suicide, only to be saved by a pack of bare-chested male swans, whose leader (Matthew Ball) helps the Prince awaken emotions and desires he's never realized before.

As a first-time viewer, I was startled by how consistently surprised I was by the production, even knowing the "twist" as a student of history (and having seen clips of a 2012 film version). I didn't expect it to be as funny as it was, and I didn't expect to feel as emotionally connected as I did. Even though contemporary attitudes have changed since the work's premiere, it still feels sort of incendiary — and really punk-rock — to watch an all-male corps de ballet leading a young man into the discovery of his sexuality. As Bourne told TheaterMania in 2006, this was all part of the goal. "I don't necessarily like to upset people, but I do want to surprise them…I never want my work to be what you'd expect it to be."

You couldn't ask for two more connected leading men than Lovell and Ball. The baby-faced Lovell is perfectly vulnerable, particularly when compared with the striking, sinewy Ball. The heat they generate, particularly in the second half (when Ball returns as the "black swan," now a human stranger who wreaks sexual havoc upon a royal ball), is palpable and genuinely sexy. You can't take your eyes off them.

Even those who aren't dance aficionados will be engaged by the production's visual storytelling. Bourne's through line is crystal clear, and his choreography is stunning (and, perhaps surprisingly, simultaneously witty and menacingly swanlike). Lez Brotherston's looming sets are larger than life, and look even more attractive when hit with the accentuations by lighting designer Paule Constable. This Swan Lake is a feast for the senses, one that will continue to inspire new generations for years to come.

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