Guys and Swans - L.A. Times Interview


Sunday, April 20, 1997

Guys and Swans

Matthew Bourne and his mainly male birds brace for the American debut of their controversial 'Swan Lake.' They can't smoke inside on breaks, but they can go to Venice Beach on down time. By KRISTIN HOHENADEL


LONDON--It's an unusually fine spring morning, and Matthew Bourne is in what passes for supreme commander mode. Assembled in front of him, on the floor of a rehearsal studio at the London Theatre Centre, are his troops: the members of his own Adventures in Motion Pictures dance company. Bourne and AMP have already established one beachhead--they've managed to turn their update of the 100-year-old "Swan Lake" into a six-month phenomenon in London's dog-eat-dog West End theater district.

With rave reviews, lines around the block and thumbs-up from the likes of Mikhail Baryshnikov, Bourne and AMP are definitely on a roll. Now, preparing to go international with the ballet's American premiere--in Los Angeles, at the Ahmanson Theatre--the dancers and their leader seem awfully confident. Just a few weeks to go to D-day, and they're lounging, chatting, kidding around. Most of the dancers have never been to the States. Just back from an L.A. scouting trip, Bourne is telling them what to expect. The good news is that the theater is modern and well-equipped. And between performances, they can take a bus to Venice Beach or join him at Disneyland.      Finally, he begins to fidget in his folding chair. "I guess," he ventures, "I should say something about smoking." He doesn't smoke, but his dancers, almost all of whom have passionate nicotine habits, eye him curiously. "They're really, really conscious of that," he continues. "There are, sort of, no smoking areas in the theater." Amused tittering breaks out in the ranks. "You can't get away with it, basically," Bourne adds, trying to be firm. "You get fined, then the company gets fined, and then the theater closes down!"

By now, the dancers are incredulous. No smoking in the building, period? "But," he adds brightly, "you can go out in the sun for your breaks. There are these fountains. It's really nice."

In the heady spring of 1997, this is what Bourne and company have found to worry about: For two long months, while they conquer America, they're going to have to step outside in order to smoke.

When the AMP "Swan Lake" premiered in late 1995 (it reopened in the West End a year later), the cognoscenti should have been prepared. After all, Bourne had already made his mark with witty remakes of other dance classics, primarily "The Nutcracker" and "La Sylphide" (which he re-christened "Highland Fling"). But this time, the shock waves were palpable.In Bourne's rethinking, the story of the lovelorn prince and the beautiful but bewitched swan has taken an altogether unusual turn. Instead of a ballerina in downy headgear and a shimmering white tutu, the Swan is a hunk with a buzz haircut, a gleaming bare chest and lush, feathery thighs.According to Bourne, the score made him do it.

"There's this power and violence that you get from [Tchaikovsky's] music, which is never really lived up to in the [traditional] ballet," says Bourne, 37, as he grabs an outdoor table at a cafe in his north London neighborhood. He's tall, his close-cropped hair is gingery in the sunlight, and his boyish face is freckled and brown from a recent trip to L.A. "I just don't see swans in a feminine way somehow. The wingspan is so enormous, it's very similar to the musculature of a male dancer's arms"--he arches his own dancer's arms way back in a gesture that haunts the ballet--"and once they're out of the water, they're quite ungainly."

He knows that the notion of male swans immediately conjures a vision of men in tutus--but this is no campy drag act. "Sendup's fine and parody's fine--for about five minutes," Bourne says. "It was important the swans were masculine, so that they were sexy. It would have been very easy for them to be flouncy and fey. Male dancers love the idea of being a swan," he says, giggling, "especially ballet dancers--and you don't want to get into that." In fact, Bourne's production was initially dubbed the gay "Swan Lake," though the choreographer and most of the reviewers insisted on a broader interpretation. "I'm not going to deny that there's a gay story in there," says Bourne, but he also underlines its universality--unrequited love, adolescent rebellion, family dysfunction and the risks of chasing a dream.

Feathered thighs aside, Bourne has also altered other aspects of the story line.In the traditional version, boy meets swan girl, boy swears eternal love to her (to free her from the swan spell), boy gets seduced by evil swan girl look-alike and swears eternal love to her too (thereby negating the first declaration), boy and doomed original swan girl break the spells by committing hara-kiri and dying happily ever after.

Bourne, after a year of "thinking through the scenes and relationships and what the characters are like," focused on the Prince. His trick was to turn the fairy tale into the stuff of a 20th century talk show, set in a 20th century royal court. Self-delusion and the Prince's wounded psyche take the place of magic spells; political corruption stands in for nasty wizards.Bourne sets the stage in Act 1: Lonely boy Prince hugs stuffed swan in his oversized bed, dreams of a beautiful, powerful incarnate swan, sleepwalks drearily through the obligations of royal life and longs for love from his ice-cold, promiscuous mother, the Queen.

"He was always a troubled child and he grew up into a troubled man," Bourne explains."He's a weak person in an environment that expects a lot from him. His mother is the perfect sort of queen in many ways because she's what everyone expects her to be--apart from the fact that she's bonking every young man going--but she keeps that to herself. That's what I love about that character, because that's what you believe goes on with a lot of these people."

The action in Bourne's revision slips in and out of the Prince's imagination, including the famous Act 2 lakeside encounter between Prince and Swan. In one of the ballet's most resonant moments, the Swan wraps the Prince in his wings. "That's the triumph of what he wants," Bourne says, "which is just to be held." Still, Bourne says, people interpret his Swan by turns as father figure, lost love, alter ego, unattainable ideal, sex object or all of the above.The appearance of the evil look-alike--in Bourne's version an omnisexual, whip-wielding gate-crasher in black leather pants--is in part a Machiavellian plot that succeeds in pushing the vulnerable future king over the mental-health precipice.

"His mind's a bit gone by then anyway," Bourne says, "and he sees in this real person all the attributes of the Swan: He's wild, he does what he likes, he's free, and he gets whoever he wants." Most notably, the Queen."I could feel in the music that I wanted something shocking and awful to happen in front of everyone," he says. At the sight of his mother and the Swan look-alike locked in a lustful dance, the Prince fantasizes having his turn with the stranger.

"That's when it gets nearest to being homoerotic. He plays with the Prince, he whispers horrible things in his ear, and he becomes a frightening thing, something the Prince can't handle," Bourne says.Then he smiles. "I love making a character suffer." And, by cruelly exposing his fantasies, Bourne does make the Prince suffer. "All of Act 4 is about his delirium," he says."It's a mind struggle for him, and basically he loses his mind and kills himself."

Not that Bourne's "Swan Lake" is unremittingly bleak. One of Bourne's inventions, the Prince's unsuitable girlfriend, was a comic hit with London audiences. An unsophisticated party girl reminiscent of the ex-Duchess of York, she actually has another identity in rehearsals: a mythical Texan namedTerrybelle Pratt."I didn't want her to be vulgar. It's funny to have this regal queen and this fun girl in the box with her, blowing her nose and clapping too loudly and being enthusiastic really. She doesn't know she's doing anything wrong. Fergie is probably a very nice girl--she's probably good fun--she was just wrong for that family," he says. "Not that anyone could be right for that family."

To Bourne, Freudian motivations and House of Windsor references make the story work for non-balletomanes."If you're going to appeal to a bigger audience, you can't have scenarios in the program," he says."You can't have pre-knowledge required. You just have to have the curtain go up and tell a story." It was, in fact, the dramatic narratives of theater, not the more abstract world of dance, that first captured Bourne's imagination. He didn't even see a ballet until he was 18 ("Swan Lake," as it happens), but in grade school he was directing song-and-dance shows, mostly versions of Disney films. "I was always stuck in front of the TV when a musical was on," he says. At 9, he started going to the theater, and in his teens he made almost nightly pilgrimages to the West End to collect autographs.

"I met Fred Astaire four or five times. For many years I was a fan-type person. I was very jealous of child stars, just hated them, because I wanted to be them," he says. "My parents were always very supportive, and I'm surprised we never actually came up with the idea that I should go to stage school or dance or act."

After high school, Bourne worked in the archives department of the BBC, then as a theater agent and an usher at the National Theatre, where he developed an interest in "serious dance." At 20, he won a grant to study the art form at London's Laban Centre, taking his first dance lesson at 22. Upon graduation in 1987, he started Adventures in Motion Pictures with some other dancers "because basically I thought I was unemployable as a dancer." In 1991, Bourne became the company's artistic director and began choreographing full-evening works.He still dances, but rarely. For the last three weeks of the Los Angeles engagement, he will cover the role of the Press Secretary, the ballet's Machiavellian manipulator.

"I'm quite good at characters that are the complete opposite of what I'm like," he says, "very dirty, sleazy characters; obsessive, nasty, difficult persons." And, despite his success, Bourne says, "I'm not ambitious at all. Everything I've done has been a bit of a surprise really. I turn down a lot of things because I think I can't do them." But his ambitions do extend to Broadway. That's where he intended to celebrate "Swan Lake's" U.S. premiere (he's now aiming for 1998). Theater scheduling problems there led him to L.A. instead.

"L.A. hasn't got the gamble aspect of a New York run," he says, "where it could be off very quickly. It will be a limited run, in [the Ahmanson's] season of plays and musicals." Besides, he likes L.A., he really likes it. "[It's] fantastic," he says. "The Ahmanson has Ann Miller and Cyd Charisse coming to our first night, and they're going like, 'Oh, they always come,' and I'm like, 'That's absolutely brilliant, You know," he says giddily, "they're my heroes, these people."

If "Swan Lake" began in Bourne's mind, the ballet itself is pure collaboration. Anything but a choreographic tyrant, Bourne delights in assembling dancers, throwing them an idea and watching what happens."It's a very special way we work together--people I know and a process I worked out." The AMP seven-dancer core has been plumped up to 40 for "Swan Lake." To find his Swan, Bourne borrowed the Royal Ballet's 25-year-old star Adam Cooper (19-year-old William Kemp now also dances the role).

"I thought it was important that we had someone who was, albeit very young, quite respected in the dance world. I needed that seal of approval." But it wasn't as if they were strangers."I cultivated Adam's friendship for a year before starting to work with him," Bourne says. As much as he's devoted to collaboration, Bourne is sometimes surprised at how well it can work: "You never know what you're going to get from people. I didn't think that Adam would take it as far as he did in the kind of homoerotic side of the relationship between the Prince and the Swan. I think he really started out very nervous about the whole thing, but I feel it's opened him up a lot as a performer and as a person."

Cooper, taking a cigarette break during a rehearsal and with his sexy Swan torso covered by a baggy T-shirt, agrees: "I was used to having the choreographer do the steps for me to copy. But having that freedom to play with the role and steps yourself made me feel what I was creating was mine, not just coming out of him. It was my role."

Lynn Seymour, 58, a retired Royal Ballet legend, volunteered to be the Queen after seeing Fiona Chadwick (another ex-Royal Ballet guest) originate the role. Her workout gear consists of a Batman T-shirt, teal leggings and full makeup. Dragging on a long, thin cigarette between fingers painted with blue metallic nail polish, she says her return to the stage has been "absolutely gorgeous, a voyage of discovery."

"Matthew gives you a good deal of freedom, but if he thinks that you're straying he has the most incredibly sensitive way of pulling you back onto the right course. It's a talent, a genius; huge sensitivity toward other people"--tears well fleetingly in her eyes--"I've learned that you don't have to be brutal to get the desired effect."

Everyone in the company seems eager to tell you that Bourne is a team player, not a prince. "He never has just one vision," says Etta Murfitt, 30, a company member and rehearsal director. "He's not precious about his work." And he listens, says Scott Ambler, 36, AMP's assistant artistic director and the Prince in "Swan Lake," "if you can say, 'I don't think my character would do this,' if you've got a [better] idea of what the music's doing."

Maintaining all this democracy has been a challenge as AMP's membership soared. "Sometimes you do wish he'd just make a decision," Scott will admit. "But Matthew doesn't want to put anybody off from contributing ideas." Bourne's next decisive moments will concern pumpkins and glass slippers. His first new work in two years, and AMP's upcoming project, is "Cinderella." Bourne chose it because "it's such a simple story that everybody knows, you can actually do quite a lot with it." He decided to set it during the Blitz in 1941 London, at the time when Prokofiev started writing the music.

"Cinderella is about someone going missing, and wartime is very suitable for that." Seymour will play the wicked stepmother. "She'll be like Joan Crawford in 'Mommy Dearest,' " Bourne says. Cooper, who recently went freelance rather than meet the Royal Ballet's demand that he give up his "Swan Lake" role, will play the "man Cinderella falls in love with." (Steering clear of royalty this time, Bourne plans to remove the prince element.) Cooper's girlfriend, Sarah Wildor, will go on leave from the Royal Ballet to play the title role."She's not a Ballerina Type," Bourne says. "She wants to be ugly and have glasses, and that's great, because you want someone who's thinking character straight away, not 'Oh, what do I look like in a costume?' "

And what exactly does he have in store for poor Cinderella? "I like leading the audience up the garden path," Bourne says, "but you can't ignore certain aspects of the story just for your own ends. If you're going to do 'Cinderella,' you have to have a happy ending."

After all, says Bourne, "you have to deliver the goods."

* * *

"Swan Lake," Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave.,
(213) 628-2772. Opens Friday, 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Additional matinees: May 29, June 5, June 12. Through June 15. $15-$60.

Kristin Hohenadel Is a Writer and Editor Who Lives in Paris

Copyright Los Angeles Times


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