The Adventures in Motion Pictures production of Swan Lake–in which men dance the bird roles and a troubled prince throws over his girlfriend for a male swan–premiered in London in 1996. It reaches New York next Saturday, playing previews at the Neil Simonuntil its October 8opening. Matthew Bourne, AMP’s 38-year-old artistic director who also appears in some performances–“I’m doing it so I can say I danced on Broadway!”–talks about himself and his ballet.
Matthew Bourne: I was born in Hackney and brought up in East London. I’d gone to quite rough schools. I thought I wanted to be an actor, and went to some acting classes when I was about 15, and I absolutely hated it. I came to dance very late. I watched my first ballet when I was 19– Swan Lake–and started to read around dance, biographies of Nijinsky and Diaghilev, Balanchine, Ashton. I took a course at the Laban Centre in London. I actually started training when I was 22.
Village Voice: How do you explain the extreme success of your Swan Lake?We attempt to tell a story that doesn’t need any prior dance information or knowledge, which I think a lot of dance does. People get confused or worried that they won’t understand it. It doesn’t need a scenario in the program. A lot of people say, “Oh, it’d been going for about three-quarters of an hour before we realized nobody had said anything.” That’s the key, I think–making sense to an audience that isn’t used to seeing dance.
Why cast men as swans? Initially it was a whim– wouldn’t it look good with males? Then when I thought, Let’s actually look at this seriously, the more I looked at it, the more it seemed right. Because of the way a swan actually is when you watch it–its wingspan. It’s very much more like a male dancer’s musculature than a female’s. The strength of a swan, the power, the violence erupted–all those things seemed more male to me.
How fast and loose do you play with the Ivanov-Petipa choreography? I decided there are times when it could be funny, and times when it definitely shouldn’t be. At times, musically, we were in serious territory. We were known as the sort of funny company. So Swan Lake was a shock to a lot of people–that it had more serious intent. I feel that with the cygnets’ [pas de quatre], you can have a bit of fun. It has a comic edge to it, even the original–a sort of wit the rest of the act doesn’t. You couldn’t not do it. The “entrance of the swans” music in Act Two uses the same pathways as in the original ballet. I’ve got different steps, but the whole of that section has the same groupings. [The other similarity to the original is] in Act One, the Soho nightclub sequence. The piece of music was actually a peasant dance, sort of lowlife in a sense, and that’s the parallel with those people in a slummy club.
In what way is Swan Lake a statement on homosexuality? I didn’t want it to be cut-and-dried–oh, this is a gay prince who can’t be himself, rejects all his girlfriends, and is in love with this image of masculine beauty, the swan. I could have done it like that, but I wanted to make it less clear. So the two things [were] to have him seen as a child with this vision of the swan who represents freedom and wildness–escape, almost–and also to give him a girlfriend, however wrong and unsuitable she is. It wasn’t completely cut-and-dried that this man is gay. This swan sort of represents the person he wants to be. It is something in his mind, after all. In Act Three, when the Stranger, as we call him–the black swan character–comes in, he is a real person, but the prince projects onto him. On the other hand, you can read the story completely as a repressed gay figure all the way through. I don’t mind that interpretation. It’s great that a gay audience can sit in a theater and watch a story that relates so closely to their own lives. In the mother-son relationship, there appear to be references to Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles. It’s not specifically supposed to be them. It’s an amalgamation of royalty, but obviously you see them within it. I’m not a royalist, and I don’t particularly believe in the privilege. But I certainly would miss it if it wasn’t there, being the Englishman I am. I went for a bit of satire about the royals with their girlfriends. Fergie and Diana–it was very topical. But also I have a lot of sympathy for them; I feel that of all the celebrities in the world, they can never answer back. This is the problem Diana had. She gave that interview, and she said what she thought. I should imagine it had driven her mad up to that point not to be able to say what she felt.
When I came to dance, I’d already developed interests in other areas–theater, film. If you’ve studied dance from a very early age, it’s very difficult to get interested in anything else, because it’s such a dedicated, time-consuming profession. I’d also worked along the way as a freelance choreographer for theater directors Sam Mendes and John Caird and Nina Gawa. Through them I learned a lot about directing actors and observing them. I brought that to my work as well. I try and get dancers to think like actors, work like actors.
How do you do that? We do a lot of character study work before things start moving. They do their own research into their characters. They come to me with information. It’s a little bit like Mike Leigh does with his actors. When they start moving, often they’ll say, “Oh, this doesn’t feel right for my character–who I am.” It’s very much the way actors would speak in rehearsal. I’m not coming through a ballet company where tradition is upheld. I feel very liberated; I can virtually employ any means to tell our story, and I can be slightly abstract when I want to be, because dance in essence is quite an abstract form of storytelling. It’s a nice position to be in, really. It feels very creative.
Do you ever sense you’re regarded as an upstart? I’m doing work to please an audience, and I always have done. In that sense my values are quite old-fashioned ones. As for being a radical, iconoclastic, trashing down the traditions of ballet–I don’t see it. I feel there is a place for the traditional piece, very much so. I love it.
What do you make of the misapprehension people have that your Swan Lake has an all-male cast?
The swans are men. Some people actually think the women are in drag. They think those beautiful-looking women are actually men!
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 22, 1998