Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Matthew Bourne - Swan Lake

Modern adaptations of traditional stories are by no means unique in the performing arts. We continually see this phenomenon in film, music, theatre and dance, sometimes with a successful result and at other times to no avail. Last month, San Francisco witnessed an example of the latter with Swan Lake, this time through the eyes of director-choreographer Matthew Bourne. Traditionalists may suggest that Bourne’s progressive Swan Lake compromises perhaps the most popular narrative ballet with the insertion of modern elements (sound effects, avant-garde sets, and uncharacteristic gender choices). In reality, it is with his choreography that the ballet falters, and not the external contemporary components. His staging did not adequately tell the story nor did it establish continuity between the scenes. In narrative dance, continuity is imperative; the audience must comprehend the order of events, the significance of characters and the materialization of relationships. There isn’t any dialogue or verse to facilitate the story telling; it must occur through the dance composition. How else can the story logically unfold in an art form where speech is absent?

The void is specifically apparent in the second act of the ballet where we should be seeing the clear development of the central character relationship, the passionate love story between the Prince and the Swan. The magic, mystery and in the end, tragedy that unfolds in the remainder of the ballet are all based on the romantic bond shaped between these two characters. The story of Swan Lake simply does not make sense unless this connection is made and developed within the choreography in the second act.

To be fair, the bond between these two main characters should not be obvious at their first encounter; a certain level of ambiguity should be present. The two aren’t really sure what to make of each other as they first meet. In fact, the Prince and the Swan are initially apprehensive of each other. However, from the beginning of their encounter, Bourne’s choreography does not represent this tentativeness; it is plain confusing. The choreographic interplay did not elicit a feeling of nervousness, anxiety or even anticipation; it was simply antagonistic. The movement choices were severe and abrasive, and did not illustrate even a slight curiosity or expectation between the two characters.

In the original story, the hesitancy between the two then wanes and desire takes over. In order to demonstrate this change, we expect that the subsequent pas de deux should be tender, depicting the two characters’ growing emotions-love, want, and need. Rather and surprisingly, Bourne’s version is contentious and in places, violent, as the two dancers continually collide and rebound off of each other, performing lifts that call to mind throwing, pushing and flinging rather than the supportive calmness that is often present in a pas de deux, especially one that should be trying to convey a budding romance. In addition, the aggressiveness present in the choreography was not persuasive as intense passion nor fervent fire; it was simply reminiscent of an angry struggle between two individuals. Two individuals that do not appear even to tolerate each other, let alone deeply care for one another.

At the conclusion of the ballet, the continuity problem reaches its pinnacle. In the last image, we see the Swan lovingly cradling the Prince in his arms. Their true relationship is finally clearly articulated through the choreography, but in this ending scene, it is far too late to establish their link and unfortunately, the message of the ballet has been lost.

Perhaps the single-most saving factor of Bourne’s Swan Lake was the artistry and athleticism displayed by the dancers. Although his choreographic choices were both suspect and problematic, the dancers execution of the steps was particularly compelling and impressive. The extraordinary talents of the company and the performances they gave were far more gripping for their abstract qualities than was the choreography’s ability to portray the narrative of the ballet.

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