As you enter The Kennedy Center Opera House, a muted image of a swan, wings spread, neck extended, warms the curtains. The theater darkens, the performance begins, and the movement of flight merges with the sound of Tchaikovsky’s well-known score. It is breathless, the beauty and power of the creature observed in slow motion. A rising power is found in the articulate wings.
Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures: Swan Lake, dating from 1995, has been updated for the 21st century. Brimming with the best of new theatrical technology, a stunning new production retains the original impulse with a fresh eye.
A cinematic stylishness propels the story forward to various locations: the Prince’s bedroom, a seedy club, a city park and Opera House. A play-within-a-play unwinds in the opera house scene. Side by side we see the opera box and a tiny stage, and observe the Prince, Queen and Girlfriend as they are watching. Set and costume design by longtime collaborator Lez Brotherston make this double view possible. The tiny space of the opera box outlines the improper theatre etiquette such as an errant cell-phone ring and a dropped evening clutch. Laughter emerges as the eye travels between the two. The Girlfriend, played by Katrina Lyndon, grabs the attention, doing the wrong thing at the right time.
The Prince, played by James Lovell, embodies the dilemmas of self-discovery, identity, and purpose. His overshadowed existence is controlled as he awakes from a deep sleep and is stretched, polished and prepared for the day by a team of domestics. The action is as precise as the trotting Corgi, a perfect pet for a live performance because those tiny legs are after all not real either, just a mechanical delight hitting each note, and an artifice with as much flip as the upturned hairdo of the helpers.
At the seedy club, couples cavort with trendy articulations of the wrists and pronounced undulation of hips. There’s humor in the quick pace and the interactions that lead to the Prince finding no solace. Lovell’s dance on the grimy street shifts as if the low could feel no lower. Video Designer Duncan McLean’s wrong-side-of-the-tracks club is a daunting visual presence. Filter through the setting with your own experience, and a background of understanding fills in the rest. Same goes for the common language of a city park where rippling waves appear on a lake, and suddenly there is a swan. Birdwatchers beware, this is one for your life list.
The magnificent half-man half-swan creatures are led by the Swan, Max Westwell. The all-male company of swans appears to engage and disengage, and form and reform like the flocking of birds. The entrances are marked by a low running gait, arms entwined behind the back. The birds begin to swoop and jump with astounding masculine strength, in myriad combinations that continue and persevere. Costumes by Lez Brotherston allow for the feathers to fly, though we see the slippery sweat of effort in the bared and muscled torsos. A controlled eloquence marks the duet performed by the Swan and the Prince, Max Westwell and James Lovell, in an amazing display of precision and presence.
In a brief interview in the program, Matthew Bourne writes about how this production has brought new audiences to dance and has influenced “the decision making of many young men to look to dance as a profession.” That is a huge accomplishment, and the seats are sold. The story is told. May its shelf life be long and continue to renew.
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission.
Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures: Swan Lake plays through January 26, 2020, at The Kennedy Center’s Opera House – 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.