Note: I apologize in advance if anyone is offended by the language used in this post. The word choice is purposeful, but not meant to offend.
Tonight I saw the gayest dance ever. Ever.
Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake is having a run at City Center and I went to see it mainly to spend some quality time with a mentor. So glad I was with her when I saw it so that we could whisper our critical analysis to each other during the performance. At the end I wanted to scream and cry (which I practically did, frantic hands and all). I think I might call this feeling outrage.
If you are familiar with Mark Morris' spoof of The Nutcracker, The Hard Nut, then you can get an idea for the over the top, 60's inspired costuming, sets, props and choreography. I almost felt like Bourne tackled the classic story ballet Swan Lake because The Nutcracker had already been taken. Before I rip this a part however, I do want to say that it was danced beautifully. The dancers did what they were told exceptionally well, and all the technical aspects worked harmoniously to produce a flawless fully staged ballet.
With that said, the narrative which only had a vague connection to the original story, was essentially a gay man's coming out story. Actually, not even.
The ballet begins with a young prince awaking in bed to a host of hand servants who wash and dress him like Prince Hakeem in "Coming to America." It was definitely akin to the memorable quote: "The royal penis is clean." He is then presented with the Queen all around the palace, although not having read the program prior to the curtain going up, I actually was not sure if she was the Queen at all. Their relationship was conspicuously ambiguous and I felt like she was the Prince's lover, more than a mother.
The Prince ends up getting distracted by this star-struck hippy-dippy chick and there's a whole divertissement scene where he takes her as a date to the opera (to see an obviously horrible dance about The Butterfly, The Lumber Jack, and The Demon Tree Branches). At the opera, Hippy-dippy Chick's uncouth behavior reaches a height and shows her as a foil to the Queen. As if we did not know the Queen was perfect already (on a pedestal, maybe virginal? frigid?), we see the Prince and the Queen back at the palace in their all white night clothes. They engage in a strangely romantic pas de deux where the Prince continuously chases, grasps and clutches her, only to be shunned and pushed away. Still it seems like a game to her and all I could think sitting in my seat was: OEDIPUS!
Shunned and sad, the Prince finds himself on the street, then on to a seedy night club filled with couples go go dancing in 60s garb. It's a typical social scene where men and women are out in hopes of going home with one another. Too bad, too sad for the Prince. He instead finds himself in the street again, rejected. Wandering to a park, suddenly a host of dancing swans appear. (Yes, it happens that randomly.) Man swans to be exact. With feathery fringe-y capri pants and bare chests. ALL of their swan movement motifs doubled for wacking and vogueing. Honestly, if it weren't for the pasty white chests to match their swan pants you would have thought Paris was burning. Their broken dangling wrists signified flamboyance, while their directed dramatic stares toward the Prince foreshadowed their menace. The Prince indulges them and engages in a homoerotic fantasy.
After intermission, I thought the gayness might dissipate a bit. Wrong. Instead it intensified exponentially via melodrama. The scene is a royal ball and the short of the story is this: a man shows up in tight leather pants dancing like a raging bull. He puts his hands down the front of his pants and pulls out a whip. Yes. A WHIP! Hello phallus! He then proceeds to literally mesmerize and hypnotize everyone in the room, man and woman and Prince and Queen, with his di... I mean whip. Everyone in the room is confused. It is unclear who is gay or straight and all the gender roles are bent, though the obvious inspiration for the movement is Spanish Flamenco dancing which has clear traditional gender roles. Again, the scene ends with a rejected Prince, this time being carried away to his room. (Starting to see a pattern here?)
The lighting design at this moment in the show was perfect. The Prince is in his nightclothes, and in comes frigid mother dressed in white, followed by a dozen nurses and a doctor also in white. "Is he in the insane asylum?" I asked my mentor. The front light cast large shadows on the starkly white backdrop. His mother's shadow was so big she was literally walking all over him. The nurses and the doctor also did the same, until they put him to sleep (did they give him drugs?) and put him back in the bed.
It is then in his dreams that he becomes taunted by the gay swans. They pop up from under the bed. They appear suddenly from behind the headboard. They slide in from the wings. The lead swan at one point pushes his way up from inside the Prince's bed, as if he were a stripper popping out of a birthday cake. The shadows of the swans become more and more menacing and taunting. And every time the music comes to a dramatic build and you think it's going to be over, another freaking swan jumps out of no where. This scene might have been ten or fifteen minutes of menacing vogueing swans shaking their tail feathers all over the place teasing the Prince. And then...
Yes, you read right. He died. WTF?! The Queen comes to mourn him, but the air of melodrama is so thick at this point that it's almost laughable to think that she even cares to come cry over his body. While the audience leaped to their feet for a standing ovation, I sat in outrage on the verge of tears.
Let's quickly recap the trajectory of the work: 1. Prince is helpless and in love with his mother. 2. Prince is consistently rejected from heterosexual interaction. 3. Prince is courted by gay swans, and indulges in fantasy (because the swans give him the "you know you want it" look). 4. Prince is taunted and confused by a hyper-masculine down-low whip guy 5. Prince can't shake the gay swans in his dreams (therefore he can not shake his own gayness), so a las he must die.
In the wake of so much current death and violence related to gay teens who are victims because of their sexuality, I don't understand how anyone could applaud the ballet. This story is a true story. This story is a sad heart-breaking story. But this story was not presented so that we could empathize for the young man who does not know how to accept his own sexuality, let a lone have society accept it. It was too over the top. It was too flamboyant. It was too... gay. To the point where I felt like this narrative was being made fun of. This is not something to make fun of!
What is more, apparently since this ballet was originally staged in 1995 it has never been off stage for more than a few months. It's been playing around the world non-stop for fifteen years! Do you mean to tell me that people have indulged in the making-light of confused gays for fifteen years?!
I'm honestly confused. Do audiences not see the overt gayness of this ballet? And if they do, do they clap and keep coming back for more because they are sympathizing with the narrative? Or simply because it was good dancing? Shouldn't we expect more from good choreography and dancing? Shouldn't art be healing? Isn't this work doing the exact opposite of that? If you've seen it, do you have a different interpretation of the narrative?