As choreographer/directors go, Matthew Bourne is in his own category, or shares at most a slice of a Venn diagram with Twyla Tharp and Bill T. Jones. He’s conquered the populist audience with shows such as Edward Scissorhands, as well as the critical mob with his remarkable Play Without Words. But he is best known for his modern rendition of Swan Lake, which is currently at New York’s City Center through November 7. The production returns to the city for the first time since 1998, this time with recorded music. The plot follows the Prince (Dominic North), essentially a prisoner in his mother (Nina Goldman) The Queen’s palace, rescued from the brink of suicide by an alluring Swan, only to be driven mad—and eventually to his death. However, he unites with the Swan in the afterworld, perhaps happy at last.
Aside from the absence of live music, the most prominent difference is that the role of the Swan was portrayed by Richard Winsor (in the cast I saw), rather than the unforgettable Royal Ballet alum Adam Cooper, who originated the role and developed a niche cult following for it. I don’t know if it was the initial visceral impact and outright agression of the swans’ portrayal, or Cooper’s magnetism, but the current effect feels tempered and pale in comparison to the first viewing. Winsor turns up the heat in the second act as the Stranger who crashes the stuffy party and seduces the Queen, and everyone else. North lends an apt elegance and refinement to the Prince, and Goldman balanced well the complications that go with being Queen. It’s nice to see the dashing Bourne regular Scott Ambler, who danced the Prince in 1998, in the role of the Private Secretary—charismatic, with a smoldering presence.
Some moments carried just as great an impact as twelve years ago: the first appearance of the entire flock of male swans, moving en masse; when they emerge from under the bed in the final scene like zombies and knee-slide atop the bed in a silken frenzy. And I did not recall how ungraceful Bourne’s movement for the swans can be, deliberately clunky, grounded shapes in between lyrical pop ballet. Despite a diminished thrill, and with recorded music, it is still fun to revisit this war horse for our time. And an unsolicited suggestion for Mr. Bourne—please cast Paul Taylor’s Michael Trusnovec as the Swan/Stranger. He might even break Adam Cooper’s mold.