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Bourne to be wild: Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake may look gay, but the British choreographer says there's more to it than meets the eye.

Start with an all-male corps of hunky swans. Set them in a time-warp dreamscape oozing baroque '40s romanticism. Mix with mime, dance, and a few female principals, and you have Matthew Bourne's extraordinary Swan Lake, which may be the most overtly gay version of the classic ballet ever seen.

Yet in three years of performances -- from its 1995 London premiere to its current Broadway run at the Neil Simon Theatre through January 24 -- Bourne's unique vision has been an unqualified "crossover" success and one of the rare pieces of gay-identified theater to cause no controversy.

In Bourne's version of Tchaikovsky's masterpiece, a solitary prince finds solace in the vision of a male swan rather than the female swan that has entranced audiences for centuries. But Bourne insists that his Swan Lake is not revisionist preaching about sexuality. "It's more complex than that," he says. "I wanted to create a character who's not clear-cut, like, `Oh, he's the repressed gay man.' I wanted a man who had a lot of confusions in his mind. Someone everyone could identify with."

Except, perhaps, himself. A Cockney who grew up "always well-adjusted, with never any confusion" about his own homosexuality, the 38-year-old choreographer jokingly wonders where he got his love of angst. "I like to make people suffer in my pieces," he says. "But that's not because I've suffered." On the contrary, since founding his own dance company, Adventures in Motion Pictures, in 1987, Bourne has maintained his status as one of Britain's preeminent artists.

And the gay element in his work was always there. "I love watching men dance," he says. "I love watching the male form moving, and I think I'm better at making men move. I find the male form a sexual thing, and I like working with that."

One of Bourne's earliest pieces, Spitfire, is a dance for four men "modeled on the ballerinas' pas de quatre-tutu thing," which caused quite a stir in his homeland. Bourne customed the men not in dance outfits but in varied white underwear. "It was like those catalog ads with men posing very chummy together," he adds. "It was only 11 minutes long, but it took off very quickly and really got us noticed."

Since then Bourne has become a master at melding male energy with storytelling. Still, Swan Lake's popularity attests to Bourne's ability to provoke audiences without necessarily being explicit. "When the two men dance together in Swan Lake, it's not with a man, it's with a swan," he says. "It's a piece that should shock people but doesn't."

Perhaps what is most shocking about the production is just how swanlike his dancers are whole on-stage. The effect was achieved, says Bourne, after study of the real thing. But he was equally inspired by the legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, whose contorted, orgiastic performance in Claude Debussy's Afternoon of a Faun created a scandal in 1912. "I'm always using Nijinsky images in my mind and very much so in this," Bourne says of Swan Lake. "To have swans as creatures, it has to feel very animalistic. There has to be a lot of flesh. It's a sexual image we're giving here. We say to the men, "Don't think just bird, think animal.'"

Schaefer is a freelance writer for USA Today and the Boston Herald.
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Author:Schaefer, Stephen
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Interview
Date:Oct 27, 1998
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