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Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake

A welcome opportunity to see a contemporary ballet-theater legend by Britain's Matthew Bourne. 

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Matthew Ball and James Lovell in a scene from Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake at New York City Center (Photo credit: Johan Persson)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

“The legend returns” claimed the fliers and posters for Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake’s short season at the New York City Center.  That proclamation wasn’t far from the truth.  Swan Lake is definitely Bourne’s most famous and prolifically performed work from a repertory that includes Edward Scissorhands, Sleeping Beauty and The Red Shoes, all having made touchdowns in New York City with varying success.  Only his Swan Lake has caught the imagination of audiences throughout the world despite its daring take on a beloved classic.

Often called “the male Swan Lake” or “the gay Swan Lake,” Bourne’s take really isn’t quite either.  There are many women in the cast, for sure, and, though the central romantic theme is homosexual, the main thrust of this Swan Lake is the universal theme of loneliness and emotional isolation.

Set somewhat indefinitely in the early sixties to the familiar Tchaikovsky score— rearranged to suit the storyline—Bourne tells of a Prince (James Lovell, wonderful dancer and even better actor) whose life is dictated by his royal position and by his autocratic, but sexually adventurous mother, the Queen (Nicole Kabera, excellent) and a cold-hearted Private Secretary (Jack Jones, properly stiff upper lip).

A court scene in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake at New York City Center (Photo credit: Johan Persson)

Literally untouchable, the Prince longs for the kind of intimacy he can only imagine.

An image of a male Swan (Matthew Ball, perfect in two roles) haunts him as he lies in bed, his rest rudely interrupted by the rituals of his position.

A silly Girlfriend (Katrina Lyndon, playing empty-headed with zest) is foisted upon him.  After a visit to the opera house to see a hilarious ballet-within-the-ballet, she persuades him to go to a discotheque from which he escapes to Hyde Park.  There he is surrounded by a flock of handsome, bare-chested swans, led by the aggressive Swan who sweeps the Prince off his feet into a whirlwind of undulating arms, seductively twisted torsos, soft leaps and vaguely threatening faces decorated with vivid black streaks ominously circling about him.

The encounter deeply affects the Prince. When a royal ball is intruded upon by a sexy Stranger who bears a striking resemblance to the Swan (Ball, heating up the stage again), the Prince melts, but is rebuffed as the Stranger swaggers about flirting outrageously with every woman, mostly European princesses there to dance Bournesque versions of their national dances for the Prince, all magically matched to Tchaikovsky’s original character dance music.

The corps de ballet in a scene from Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake at New York City Center (Photo credit: Johan Persson)

The last straw is the Stranger’s going off with the Queen leading to the Prince’s nervous breakdown and an over-the-top apotheosis worthy of the original Petipa Russian Swan Lake.

Bourne does over-the-top brilliantly helped by a first rate creative team.  Lez Brotherston’s evocative sets and costume match Bourne’s wit and theatricality.  From the Prince’s oversized, multi-purpose bed to the colorful nightclub and the dreamy park, Brotherston is totally in synch with Bourne’s choreography and dramatic staging.  His costumes help define the characters from the stiff royal uniforms to the Girlfriend’s puffy miniskirts to the masterful, iconic feathery leggings of the swans.

Paule Constable’s moody lighting is superb while Duncan McLean’s projections are particularly effective in the park scene.

Although performed to a not perfect recording of the mighty Tchaikovsky score, the dancing and acting are extraordinary.  Bourne’s Swan Lake has become an institution with companies constantly touring.  This company’s City Center mini-season is part of a United States tour, explaining the dearth of performances.

Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake (January 30-February 9, 2020)

New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit

Running time:  two hours 30 minutes including one intermission

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Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (526 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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