BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
Not your grandma's "Swan Lake" — all tulle and feathers — director-choreographer Matthew Bourne's "Swan Lake" is an expressively danced drama to Tchaikovsky's music that mixes satisfying storytelling with some very serious heat.
No doubt some of you saw the show when it played Broadway for four months back in 1998. Since then Bourne seems to have cranked up the thermostat with this latest incarnation, which opened over the weekend at New York City Center for a stint through Nov. 7.
The piece has a reputation for being an "all male" version of the classic, but that's not so. Elegant Nina Goldman portrays the icy Queen whose self-involvement is partly the cause of her princely son's woes in Bourne's story while all of the story's female characters are depicted by women.
What's all-male in every sense of the word is the macho band of powerful swans who storm the stage several times. Bare-chested and bare-footed, lower torsos clad in downy white, their upper bodies slick with moisture, these dancers attack the swans' proud and preening choreography like Olympians out for the gold.
Bourne's modern-day scenario regards a troubled young prince trapped in a crushing routine of royal chores dominated by his aloof mother. Contemplating drowning himself in a lake, the prince encounters a swarm of swans and eventually dances lyrically with its leader in the blue moonlight.
Highborn duty calls, however, and the prince later attends a court ball where a hunky stranger in leather pants — who resembles that primo swan in human form — transfixes the ladies and discomfits the men with his menacing, sensual presence. A confrontation between the prince and the stranger leads to a tragic yet liberating conclusion for the royal misfit.
Melding classical choreography with modern dance modes, Bourne brilliantly focuses on the dramatic aspects of the story. Considerable humor arises in the glitzy form of the prince's vulgar, social-climbing girlfriend and during a command performance of a Victorian-style ballet in which Bourne spoofs vintage conventions. Contrasting with the frou-frou of court life are the starker sequences involving the swans.
The acting is especially effective and lends the production extra emotion. The plaintive Dominic North's uneasy, rather shrinking prince is very much a wistful soul dominated yet neglected by Goldman's coolly gracious queen. Madelaine Brennan is comical in her broad performance as the gauche girlfriend and Scott Ambler is a watchful figure as the private secretary to the royals.
Effortlessly commanding in his dual role as the chief swan and the stranger, Richard Winsor dances like a demon and exudes a strong sense of dangerous sexuality during the ballroom sequence.
Designer Les Brotherston provides striking sets and stylish costumes that are colorfully lit for changing moods by Rick Fisher. No credit is given for the "Swan Lake" recording used by the production but the surging and flowing Tchaikovsky score sounds rich. Altogether, Bourne's inventive mix of drama and dance revitalizes an old favorite and offers theatergoers an unforgettable time.
"Swan Lake" continues through Nov. 7 at New York City Center, 131 W. 55th St., New York. Call (212) 581-1212 or visit www.nycitycenter.org.