In the thick creative and professional life of Sir Matthew Bourne, artistic director of New Adventures, his production of “Swan Lake” has been a difference maker, an epochal mark and a surge forward.
That’s why the current production of his groundbreaking version of “Swan Lake” in the Kennedy Center Opera House — with six performances between Thursday, Jan. 23, and Sunday, Jan. 26 — bears a little more weight than usual. For one thing, it’s the first Kennedy Center visit of the New Adventures production, although Bourne’s version of “Cinderella” was performed here last season.
It’s not only a matter of a first time, but a matter of a long time ago.
“Yes, it has been a long time,” Bourne said in an interview from London, where his production of “The Red Shoes” was ending its run. “Twenty-five years. A lot has happened since then.”
We asked if the production was different. “Sure,” he responded. “Technically, you can do more onstage now than you could then — things like projections. The look may change a little. But it’s still this ‘Swan Lake,’ and that’s what matters.“
It matters, indeed, still does and certainly did then.
Everybody that’s come in contact with the traditional “Swan Lake” ballet can instantly conjure up a certain imagery, along with its breathtaking Tchaikovsky music: the fairy-tale setting, white swan and black swan, fulfilled and unfulfilled love and betrayal.
Much of what some hold dear about the great story ballets is practically embedded in “Swan Lake” — the pull of stories that we seem to have dreamed long ago, especially the striking image of white ballerina swans shimmering across the lake, across the stage and our lines of sight and memory.
Bourne’s “Swan Lake” has all that, and then again, not. The story has become different; it’s about the prince looking desperately for and needing love, and not finding it in the right places, about the role of the public prince and the difficulty of finding the love he needs.
There’s obviously a little serendipity in that situation today, which Bourne acknowledges. “The royal thing, and the public, that does seem to be a bit relevant these days,” he said.
And, of course, there are the swans.
In Bourne’s take, and from his imagination, come lines and groups of swans, dangerous swans. And they are male swans. They move differently, carry themselves differently and mean something different. They certainly look different, with those black front-faced stripes and sharp hair. They are, as male swans often are, menacing, even frightening, but also beautiful in their own way.
In 1995, when Bourne’s company (then called Adventures in Motion Pictures) was a popular but not yet spectacular dance company in London, Bourne had by that time been many things in the business of performing arts. He’d run small companies as a teenager, he’d sold tickets, did programs. He was a hard-earned provocateur of the nuts and bolts of the stage.
“Swan Lake” changed things, he said.
When Bourne’s radical version of “Swan Lake” opened at Sadler’s Wells in London, with its legendary and famous male swan corps, as well as having a heroic male figure, it “changed everything.” Initially, there was some fear that audiences might not be willing to accept this new approach. One of the lead dancers in the original production thought the idea “was mad.”
The opposite turned out to be the case.
Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake” was a hit, and continued to be a hit, winning awards and audiences the world over. Adventures in Motion Pictures morphed into its current incarnation, New Adventures, in 2002. The first “Swan Lake” production at Sadler’s Wells garnered a Laurence Olivier Award, and would get a Tony Award on Broadway in 1999. Overall, the production has gained over 30 international awards. Obviously, these swans took flight.
Still, “Swan Lake” and classic story ballets are, to many avid fans, ballets. This is true, but not enough for Bourne. He likes to think in terms of dance, and, beyond that, story and theater itself. His view, when you talk to him, sounds expansive, inviting. “I like to think of myself as a storyteller,” he said.
The performing arts — especially the dearly held classical forms like ballet, dance, opera and classical music — are struggling with identifying audiences, issues which are generational but also contemporary. There’s a reason, of course, that something like “Swan Lake” (and maybe there’s nothing quite like this particular “Swan Lake”) retains its popularity to the point of being iconic.
This “Swan Lake” has created a larger audience, while keeping its traditional one. You suspect that’s what Bourne is about: fearless in themes and adventuring into new territory, but glorious in discovering and locating new audiences.
“You have to find the audience and let it find you,” he says. His track record pretty much proves the point. He choreographed new productions of big musicals like Cameron Mackintosh’s versions of “Oliver” and “My Fair Lady” and has worked with all sorts of theater and dance collaborators. With New Adventures, he ventured into a production called “Play Without Words,” an unusual dance production that explored, in a very different way, the works of the old/new English playwrights and was based on Joseph Losey’s dark film “The Servants.” From clips on YouTube, the dancing, not silent or slow, was nothing less than hot. This was also true of “The Car Man” (as in “Carmen”), which had a fever tempo.
Bourne’s mind seems to run up-tempo with ideas all of the time. He loves the idea of “Swan Lake” coming to the Kennedy Center now.
He is rich in honors, including the knighthood for services to dance. “There’s that,” he says, with not entirely modest pride, as well he should. It’s right in there, with a list of uncommon and eclectic adventures, not only in motion but in imagination, like his version of “Edward Scissorhands,” for instance.
Recalling that first journey on “Swan Lake,” he mused: “I suppose I’m different, too. I’m happy in myself and what I do. I feel as if I’m home.”