Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake replaces the traditional line of ballerina swans in white tutus with men in feathered pantaloons. The ballet first premiered in London in 1995 and follows a similar storyline to the original, featuring a young prince who becomes enchanted by a swan. An epic, star-crossed love ensues.

James Lovell, Max Westwell and company in Matthew Bourne’s <i>Swan Lake</i> © Craig Schwartz Photography
James Lovell, Max Westwell and company in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake
© Craig Schwartz Photography

Running through January, this production at Ahmanson Theatre opens to the Prince, asleep in bed as he writhes during a dream of a large swan. Once he wakes up, the hazy scrim lifts, and he is quickly whisked into a comical ensemble that touts him about his royal duties. A mechanical dog garners some laughs as it trots across the stage.

Emotionally danced by Andrew Monaghan, the Prince’s struggle with his sexuality becomes evident throughout the opening scenes. When a male statue is unveiled, he gawks, and he shows little interest in the Girlfriend who galavants with the other soldiers. During the hectic ensemble scenes, the Prince often stands alone in the middle, arms at his sides. He appears lost in the hustle of royal life, daunted by the displays of heteronormative romance.

His relationship with the Queen, danced by Katrina Lyndon, does not help. In a particularly painful scene, the two perform a ferocious duet. Over and over again, the Prince attempts to place his mother’s palm on his face, and she continues to yank her hands away. Starved of tenderness, the Prince yearns for love and human contact.

Katrina Lyndon and company in Matthew Bourne’s <i>Swan Lake</i> © Craig Schwartz Photography
Katrina Lyndon and company in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake
© Craig Schwartz Photography

He finally finds gentleness in his duet with the Swan, danced by Max Westwell. Their contact begins hesitantly, as the Prince earns the Swan’s trust. Westwell’s muscular body dwarfs Monaghan’s boyish frame, a contrast that proves dynamic throughout the show. The duet grows into a display of male sensuality, as the dancers shift between soaring jetés and weight-sharing lifts.

The ensemble of swans rises from the smoke into majestic poses and then bursts into quirky bouts of birdlike dance. Their constant change between graceful and twitchy movements matches their audible breaths and foot-stomping. Bourne pays tribute to the original ballet’s Dance of the Little Swans with four swans who stomp and shake their hips. The flamboyant movements are nuanced, unrefined, and even a bit grotesque, but the dancers move in perfect unison, embodying swans with eerie accuracy.

Andrew Monaghan and Will Bozier in Matthew Bourne’s <i>Swan Lake</i> © Craig Schwartz Photography
Andrew Monaghan and Will Bozier in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake
© Craig Schwartz Photography

Within the show, the characters attend the ballet, and the choreography cleverly pokes fun at balletic traditions. The dancers display exaggerated mimes and melodramatic flourishes, hearkening to the style of story ballets like the original Swan Lake. Meanwhile, the Girlfriend in the royal box talks on her phone and accidentally drops her purse onto the stage.

Bourne’s version of Swan Lake presents a refreshing lack of tights. The women wear dresses and character shoes, while the men are clad in pressed slacks. In the raucous bar scene, the ensemble performs choreography that deconstructs various social dance moves. Clever projections make the name of the bar shift from Swank to Swan. These breaks from balletic tradition keeps the audience attentive and the mood contemporary.

James Lovell and Max Westwell in Matthew Bourne’s <i>Swan Lake</i> © Craig Schwartz Photography
James Lovell and Max Westwell in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake
© Craig Schwartz Photography

Unfortunately for the Prince, the ballet takes a tragic turn just like the original. At the Royal Ball, a Stranger appears to look like the Swan, but he exhibits a lewd and sexual attitude, flirting with all the women present, especially the Queen. This hypersexualized scene leaves the Prince uncomfortable in the corner, until he joins the Stranger in an intense and elusive duet. Soon after, the ballet devolves, ending in a horrible twist of fate.

Every aspect of Bourne’s Swan Lake is spectacular. Each ensemble dancer plays an important role, buoying the story with comedic interjections. The Queen perfectly embodies a distant mother, and the Girlfriend’s blonde bombshell humor compliments the tension between the Prince and his mother. A dynamic duo of repressed desire, the Prince and the Swan earned an instant standing ovation. Matthew Bourne’s choreographic innovation keeps the tradition of ballet alive by giving it contemporary tones and an emotional narrative. This production proves ballet – and Swan Lake – will continue to endure and touch the hearts of audiences.

*****