I love the ballet. For the first half of my life, I wanted to be a ballerina and had the knobby toes and duck-footed walk to prove it. Then I got to college, where all-you-can-eat ice cream (and all-you-can-drink beer) intervened, and my pointe shoes got hung up for good.
I loved the athleticism of dancing, the grace, the emphasis on form, and the search for that perfect line from fingertip to toe–but rarely, if ever, did I think about ballet as…erotic. Didn’t think about it when I danced, didn’t notice it when I went to ballet performances.
Yesterday, though, I saw a performance of “Swan Lake” that finally matched the throbbing romanticism of Tchaikovsky’s score: Matthew Bourne’s all-male Swan Lake. It wasn’t a perfect performance – some of the dancers were a little wobbly, the corps wasn’t utterly synchronized, but the raw power of the dancers more than compensated for those wobbly bits. Bourne updates the classic fairytale story and incorporates different types of dancing beyond ballet–jazz, modern, even a bit of disco here and there–and the story packs much more of a wallop than the conventional ballerina-enchanted-by-wicked-magician.
When I’ve watched conventional “Swans” even though I am moved by the beauty of the dancing, I never think to myself that I’m watching a courtship between the prince and the swan princess. In the Bourne performance, however, there is a courtship–and like all courtships, it is erotic, tentative, fraught with anxiety, all of which eventually yield to joy: the prince knows he has found The One.
The fact that the swans dance shirtless, so that you can see the sweat gleaming on their backs and torsos adds to the eroticism of their movements, which reminded me, over and over again, of the lines from Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan:” “A sudden blow, the great wings beating still/above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed/by the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill/he holds her helpless head against his breast…”
The violence and power of Yeats’ swan flies across the stage here, too: these are not delicate cygnets prancing in pointe shoes: these are strong, savage, masterful birds, and the leader has chosen the Prince for his own. And unlike Leda, this Prince, for his part, is happy to have been chosen.
When the two lovers are finally, painfully, reunited in the ballet’s closing moments, even the staid matrons sitting in front of me were moved–they dug in their overstuffed handbags for tissues and were the first to their feet at the final curtain–not to make their train back to the ‘burbs, but in wild applause.
The Swans are at City Center until November 7.