The Stories We Tell: Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake

By Motzkus, Heidi Tolles | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

The Stories We Tell: Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake


Motzkus, Heidi Tolles, Phi Kappa Phi Forum


French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) had a keen interest in the principles of ordering and categories. He examined documents of institutions from the late sixteenth century through the nineteenth century. Foucault took note of the ways in which institutions gave birth to new ways of thinking and how those ways of thinking worked themselves incrementally into ideology. For example, the notion of what conditions are "sick" and what conditions are "healthy" has changed throughout history. Among many other things, Foucault observed that homosexuality did not exist as a category until the nineteenth century. Each time new categories are created, our understanding of the world changes. The task of "naturalizing" these categories, making them seem normal or abnormal, falls to the dominant social group. The dominant social group ensures that the school curriculum, the bedtime stories, the mass media, and so on reflect its own ideology. Through repetition, these categories become the social norms. In other words, we are the stories that we tell.

British choreographer and director Matthew Bourne imagined a new story. Ten years after its first performance, Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake is touring North America once again, thrilling audiences with its vibrant energy, biting wit, and dramatic power. Originating in England, Matthew Bourne's production reimagines Tchaikovsky's story of the hunter who falls in love with a female swan. Tchaikovsky's inspiration for the story is unknown, but stories of women transforming into swans are told in many cultures, dating back hundreds of years.

A decade ago, Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake was viewed as controversial, if not subversive, due in part to his decision to change the all-female corps de ballet that normally dances the roles of the swans, to an all-male corps. Bourne explains that, "By using men, you are wiping away all those mental pictures in the audience's mind and freeing up their imagination, ready to experience something new." There are many "new" things in Bourne's ballet, including a love story that shifts to the love between a prince and a male swan.

This ballet emphasizes the strength and the sometimes violent nature of the swans. Bourne explains, "The idea of a male swan makes complete sense to me. The strength, the beauty, the enormous wingspan of these creatures suggest to me the musculature of a male dancer...." Bourne's new version of the Swan Lake story differs from the original ballet, though the themes remain the same. This version is set somewhere between 1950 and the present and tells of a young English prince who is in conflict with himself. His mother, The Queen, is an unloving mother and is not attentive to The Prince's emotional needs. The Prince becomes enamored of a woman with behavioral characteristics that remind one of Sarah Ferguson, former Duchess of York (and there are many other royal-family references). They all attend a ballet, a side-splittingly funny send-up of traditional ballet, at which The Girlfriend behaves abominably, and The Queen is mortified. The Prince follows The Girlfriend to a seedy disco, rife with amusing references to the 1960s and 1970s. After a drunken brawl, the rejected and despairing Prince staggers out into the moonlit night. As he is about to drown himself in a lake, he meets a swan. That is, he meets The Swan and the flock of swans--all strong, bare-chested, beautiful, and sometimes vicious. The Prince and The Swan dance an athletic and emotional duet, a physical expression of the dangers of forbidden love. …

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