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Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
January 26, 2020 

Sadly, the last performance of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake came on the night before press night, put off till the second to the last performance.  So, though you won’t be able to see this ballet in Washington, DC, it’s worth a trip to New York’s City Center where it will be performed through February 9th.

Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures ~ Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake – Photo by Johan Persson

Like many others familiar with Sir Matthew Bourne’s company, New Adventures, and his modern adaptations of classical ballets, I have become a rabid fan.  (Don’t tell him I used his title.  He’s very modest.)  Last year at the Kennedy Center I went totally gaga over his interpretation of Cinderella set in racy London in the 1920’s. 

In Bourne’s reimagined Swan Lake, The Swans and many of the other dancers are male.  Females include the Queen, the Moth Maiden, Princesses at the Royal Ball, a smattering of nightclub participants, and The Girlfriend.  As the consummate Brit, Bourne uses wonderfully opulently British symbolism – sometimes with reverence, though ofttimes tongue-in-cheek as in his nod to the current Queen’s infatuation with Corgis (a mechanical dog prances behind her), the elegantly dressed servants, in tailored black uniforms, and a massive bed with royal crest where we first encounter the Prince.

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For balletomanes who swoon at Bourne’s dazzling productions – here we enjoy the eye-popping elegance of his sets, the 1950’s-1960’s era costumes from sweeping silk dresses with cinched-in waists to Mod period minis and baby doll dresses – these aspects of his highly styled productions are excitement enough.  Against the plot of the Prince’s descent into madness and his ultimate rebirth as a fully-fledged swan, they continue to be revolutionary.

Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures ~ Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake – Photo by Johan Persson

As dramatic as this story is, there are some lighter moments including The Butterfly Dance, led by a buffoon in lederhosen who chases after the enchanted butterflies with a net while creepy wood nymphs break up their fluttering fancy, and a hilarious scene in the Royal Box when the Prince brings a young floozie as his guest.  The Queen is appalled when the girl’s cell phone goes off during the performance as she tries to cozy up with the Queen with chocolates and utterly inappropriate conversation.

When ultimately the Prince is ostracized, he plans his suicide by pasting his note on a streetlamp.  There he encounters the lead swan who both lures him and later sadistically rejects him.  It is a dance both tender and feral.  In one of the most dramatic encounters of the ballet, the swan engages in a ferocious battle with the other swans to win his love.

Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures ~ Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake – Photo by Johan Persson

This 2018 revival of the 1995 original production features new designs, new lighting design and revised choreography.  It is one of the most spectacular ballets you will ever witness – one barely recognizable as the Swan Lake of tutus and feathered headdresses.  In this magnificent incarnation, the power and force of the dances achieved through male swans is a mind-blowing game-changer.

Highly recommended.

Director and Choreographer, Matthew Bourne; Music composed by Tchaikovsky; Set and Costume Design by Lez Brotherston; Lighting Design by Paule Constable; Sound Design by Ken Hampton.

Seen while on tour at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts , this production now heads to New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, New York, New York 10019.  For tickets and information visit

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