Matthew Bourne Tells of Mixing Drama & Dance in B'way-Bound Swan Lake

Matthew Bourne Tells of Mixing Drama & Dance in B'way-Bound Swan Lake Audiences may have sighed and nodded wistfully when one of the Chorus Line auditionees sang, "Everything is beautiful at the ballet," though ballet and Broadway haven't been that chummy in recent times. The Carousel revival had elements of classical dance, and Forever Tango offers authentic Spanish footwork, but The Red Shoes received a quick stamping out, while most current musicals eschew ballet in favor of standard Broadway period, popular or ethnic dance.
The Company of Swan Lake
The Company of Swan Lake (Photo by Photos by Dee Conway)

Audiences may have sighed and nodded wistfully when one of the Chorus Line auditionees sang, "Everything is beautiful at the ballet," though ballet and Broadway haven't been that chummy in recent times. The Carousel revival had elements of classical dance, and Forever Tango offers authentic Spanish footwork, but The Red Shoes received a quick stamping out, while most current musicals eschew ballet in favor of standard Broadway period, popular or ethnic dance.

Hoping to smash all that is Matthew Bourne's newly choreographed, theatrical version of the ballet Swan Lake, a hit both in London and Los Angeles.

The flamboyant dance/theatre show, with men dancing the swan roles usually assigned to ballerinas, begins Broadway previews Sept. 26 and opens Oct. 8 for a 16-week engagement at the Neil Simon Theatre. The event is co produced by Cameron Mackintosh and Katharine Dore.

Tickets for the Broadway production went on sale Apr. 26 via Ticketmaster at (212) 307-4100.

After a run at London's Piccadilly Theatre, the piece, a modernized look at the ballet that is strongly influenced by contemporary stage musicals, had a hit run at L.A.'s Ahmanson Theatre, Apr, 22-June 15, 1997. Asked why this Swan Lake has captured the public imagination, Robert Noble, of the Mackintosh office in London said, "It's a mix of ballet and musical theatre. It's very accessible and more comic; you don't feel like you're sitting through your `normal' ballet."

A look at the Piccadilly program shows that this Swan Lake has scenes not only in an opera house and the prince's bedroom, but in "A Seedy Club," where characters include a Pop Idol, East End Gangsters and a Pimp.

In the London production and likely to return, Royal Ballet principal Adam Cooper played the prince turned into a swan. Also performing are Scott Ambler (Prince) and Fiona Chadwick.

As he did in London and L.A., Lez Brotherson will design the Broadway production. The production will have lighting by Rick Fisher, and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's score will get new orchestrations by Andrew Lloyd Webber's longtime collaborator, David Cullen.

"I have to be in love with the music," director-choreographer Bourne told Playbill On-Line (May 22). "That's how a piece reaches me; I have to feel it. For example, the idea of commissioning music for a show worries me in case I don't like it when I hear it. Then again, if I had the right person to work with ... Then I wouldn't be limited to available titles. I could develop the piece completely from the beginning."

Fans of Swan Lake would likely say Bourne is creative enough even using a pre-selected classical score. "With Swan Lake I knew in my mind male swans would work, I could see it," Bourne said. "The performers have to be wonderful dancers, that's the first hurdle," Bourne said. "Even though the show has intimate scenes that require subtle acting, there's no point having a good actor who can't dance in that style. And it's difficult, because a lot of dancers aren't usually required to act. A lot of modern dance companies rarely ask dancers to be anything other than themselves. (Though certain companies -- ABT, for example -- involve narrative work.) My dancers do a lot of research about their characters, so they know where the character comes from."

Asked about his influences, Bourne said, "In the ballet world I love British choreographer Frederick Ashton. I love the variety of it. The combination of humor and romance. He's given me the most influence. As far as theatre directors go, I've worked with quite a few on various musicals and plays, such as Sam Mendes [on Oliver! in London], and John Caird [Les Miz]. I've learned from each director, though it's an indirect connection, a way to approach the work. Film musicals influenced me as well, especially growing up."

According to "The Theatre List" newsletter (put out by the Society of London Theatre), Bourne's "Adventures In Motion Pictures" troupe has made its reputation "through the subversion of traditional dance forms with productions of The Nutcracker and Highland Fling (based on La Sylphide)." The latter was revived by the company in late February following their Swan Lake engagement. Other pieces by the troupe include Does Your Crimplene Go All Crusty When You Rub? (1987-90) and The Percys Of Fitzrovia (1991-93). Their last Bourne show was an adaptation of "Cinderella," which played at the Piccadilly Theatre in London in 1997.

Bourne told Playbill On-Line Cinderella would go to L.A.'s Ahmanson for eight weeks in April 1999, with New York targeted for another, "very limited" eight-week run after that."

Although Cinderella is set during the London blitz, "We didn't `mess around' with it as much as with Swan Lake, Bourne said. "She is a woman. The fairy godmother became a male guardian angel figure, but that wasn't a sexual thing. It's just that you want to speak to a modern audience in a new way. You don't just want to present what someone's done before."

Asked about upcoming projects, Bourne mentioned a bunch of candidates with none a particular front-runner. "Giselle" is a possibility, as is Sweeney Todd, a piece based on Harold Pinter's The Servant and a dance film using the songs of Noel Coward.