Adventures in Motion Pictures: Swan Lake

Avgi newspaper 3 Nov 1996English

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Contextual note
Translated by Margaret Baines

The title of this article should be “a small taste of performances that were staged in London”, as what follows is a review of a performance which I recently saw at the Picadilly Theatre. The show was first presented with great success last year and it is the personal -and complete- version of the Swan Lake by the much talked about group Adventures in Motion Pictures (AMP) and choreographer Matthew Bourne.

It is not easy to adapt this long play into the contemporary dance movement. Even more so is the case with the development of a thematic alternative which will convincingly challenge the original.

Bourne presented a “multidimensional” version which accommodated several undercurrents beneath the smooth façade of the well known story. The dancers’ costumes referred to the decades from the ‘50s to date, which (presumably) covered the time from the hero’s birth right up to adulthood. The show appeared to draw material and had similarities with the current condition of the British monarchy, the war of the press announcements etc. The prince, sensitive, often witless, lonely starts his fateful course: his mother-authoritarian and sensual, a double of Mrs Robinson (in the Graduate)-is incapable of showing any tenderness towards her son. There is a second significant presence in his life, the Private Secretary, who points out to the prince his responsibilities and interferes with his wishes. He will carry on forming relationships with unsuitable people; his fiancé’s character is a caustic reference to the involvement of royal personage in all kinds of “pink” scandals. All of these happen until he meets the swans at a city park. At this moment, the audience will experience an exceptionally inspiring choreography of an all male troupe who are breathtaking.

The characteristic position of the female dancer’s hands-which indicates the movement of swan wings-on the one hand intensified the drama because of the oddity of the movement being displayed by a man’s body; on the other it differentiated between the two versions, as in this performance it is a point of reference and a reminder as the dancers use it several times. The prince will find himself next to the swan, as it clearly is a reference to his homosexuality. His happiness, though will be shattered at the Palace Dance, where “his” swan, dressed in black leather, will appear and without even looking at the prince will dance with every guest and will flirt even with the Queen. This is another momentous scene, where the reversals are constant and nothing resembles the original story. Listening to the well known music of the dances in honour of the prince, the audience expects that Bourne will yield to tradition and will present the female guests dancing. However, here, the music is used to move things along without any interest in its precise function. When finally the invited young women dance, they do so without pretence leaving behind the good manners of classical ballet and express clearly their lust for the black swan. The conflicts between the prince and his mother which follow lead him to madness. This is not unknown in the British Royal family (for example, see the film “the madness of king George the third”) as is widely accepted the eccentric behaviour when one is in the throes of a love affair (see Edward and Wallis Simpson). In the end the prince dies and thus, is reunited with the white swan. What is important in Bourne’s alternative version does not relate to the role reversal and the prince’s homosexuality. It is, in my opinion, the development of the characters through the movement, which leads the spectator to question what is going on on stage, what is real and what is imagination which a rare occurrence in dance.

It is the theatre and the films that mostly dominate this discourse, but now, dance has also the ability to present such a nuanced and detailed drama by using only the motion and the intervention of the theatrical aspect of the spectacle. Bourne manages this, building the hero’s personality gradually through the development of the storyline. He studies his hero’s reactions at the various stages of the performance asking us: who is the swan and what is his relationship to the prince? Is the prince really mad? Is he the only one to blame for all that has happened, being unable to function in a normal environment? Is he at odds with his destiny and responsibilities emanating from his privileged position? I believe that the latter viewpoint finds resonance in Bourne’s work; that is, the romantic image of madness, the reference to all kinds of socially unacceptable positions; a maverick who tries to have it all his own way.

Concluding, I would like to comment on the exciting anachronism during the scene where the royal family goes to the theatre to see a performance of ballet which is staged in a way reminiscent of the beginning of the 20th century. The narrative structure typical of that era, as shown in its thematic content, movement configuration and complexities of relationships between the dancers, was consummate and full of irony.