Swan Lake vs The Canon

Swan Lake is synonymous with the ballet, with the classical canon, with wilting damsels and monarchical standards of Romantic tragedy, but it has a subversive and vastly more intriguing reach than that. From its blundered premiere, to its many renderings throughout time; hosting subtle to outrageous variations, it has been the playdough of the ballet world; reworked and reimagined to reflect the needs of the moment. None were more flagrant than Matthew Bourne’s 1995 remake which will be discussed in detail in this essay due to its modifications in gender representation, tender portrayal of homosexuality and its irrevocable impact on the canon. This post will also discuss some boring stuff about costumes and staging, you can go ahead and skip that part if you like…


Credit: Johan Persson


A Nineteenth Century Flop


Swan Lake made its abortion of a premier at the Bolshoi Theatre in 1877 and is often thought of as one of the most spectacular failures of ballet’s romantic era. It was ridiculed by critics of the day and failed to sell tickets, which soon led to its removal from the company’s repertoire. The original score was composed by Tchaikovsky, it was his first attempt at composing a ballet and appears to have been undertaken as a financial necessity as oppose to a great love of the artform. This was coupled with the work of Czech choreographer, Julius Reisinger, with whom, he made the team of disaster (Morrison, 2018).


Swan Lake was however, dredged from retirement by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov in 1895, just two years after the death of Tchaikovsky at which time it received a serious overhaul, including a reshuffling of the plot line, adjustments to the score from composer and house conductor, Riccardo Drigo as well as choreography, lighting, costuming and staging (Morrison, 2018).


The Mariyinsky Theatre in St.Petersberg, told the story of a pure and virginal princess Odette who, along with a bevy of friends, had been transformed into a swan using terrifying, backwards wizardry, leaving her destined to float on a lake of tears during her diurnal hours. However, at night, the magic bird women resume human form, where it is presumed they will stay out of trouble entirely. It is on a night such as this, that Odette meets Prince Siegfried and they embark on their anfractuous tale of love and trouble. For it is not long after declaring his love for Odette that the prince declares his love for Odile, Odette’s hypnotic doppelganger. After which the couple meet their watery and most tragic deaths (Kassing, 2017). This reworking proved remarkably successful and became a model for the classical ballets that followed.



Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake


All lasting works of literature give rise to a hero, and this post is no exception. In 1995, Matthew Bourne took it upon himself to queer Swan Lake. The result of which was tender, entertaining and reflective of sociocultural advances; it also provided a response to the classical canon, within which Swan Lake historically held a throne (Vida, 2003).


Of the more than 70 stagings of Swan Lake, it can be argued that Bourne’s has been the most imaginative balletic production. In what Reynolds and McCormick (2003, p. 705) refer to as the “era of gender-bending” Bourne replaced Odette with Odine and the corp of helpless waifs with angry man swans in a production “stripped clean of tradition.” (Scholem, 1998, p. 27A). Along with this came raucous changes to the plot; the black swan does not attempt to secure Prince Siegfried’s affection, but to drive him to jealousy by seducing every woman in the room, including his ice queen mother. The Prince, already living on borrowed time from madness due to the pains of an unaffectionate mother and the unattainability of true love, descends into a suicidal abyss after threatening court sycophants with a pistol. Locked away in his room, the swans break in and Odine, who initially played hard to get, reaffirms his affection for the Prince and in the same moment shuns his aggressive swan friends, ensuring that the tragic couple are both mercilessly pecked to death. They do however meet in the afterlife in a tender embrace, implying that their ghost romance will outlast time and physicality in one final gesture towards the lasting importance of romantic love (Jones, 2016).






The Queer Canon


Bourne’s queering of this classic is perhaps not as modern a feat as the reader would imagine. Tchaikovsky himself was gay (Curtis, 1995), and swans have historically been a symbol of homosexuality. This began with Ludwig II of Bavaria and his Neuschwanstein castle; who’s “aesthetic and ineffective” leadership (Edgecomb, 2018, p.230) led to masses of swan iconography across nineteenth century Bavaria along with the general understanding across Europe that this signified homoerotic freedom (Edgecomb, 2018).


Perhaps then, Swan Lake was always intended to be queer…


In her essay Notes on “Camp”, Susan Sontag (2009), suggests that camp aesthetics are compassionate and accepting and that this in turn is transformative and liberating for those who witness it;


“The connoisseur of Camp has found more ingenious pleasures. Not in Latin poetry and rare wines and velvet jackets, but in the coarsest, commonest pleasures, in the arts of the masses.” (Sontag, 2009, p. 289).


If gender is not a binary, then queer too, is a spectrum, and all arts have their place, the ‘commonest’ of which are most relatable to the largest amount of people. Since it is the job of artists and the arts to communicate, it stands to reason that the more common, the more queer and the more subversive an artform, the more effectively it can be employed as a tool of communication. Therefore the versatility and homosexuality present in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake makes it more relatable than historical representations of the ballet.




Costuming, Staging and Lighting


In order to compare dramatic elements this essay will refer between Matthew Bourne’s 1995 production and Petipa’s 1895 reworking as it is a vastly more substantial comparison than the original failure. Costumes in Petipa’s production were the traditional, flammable gauze and tulle constructions of the time, with the thematic addition of feathers. Women wore tutu’s, tights and point slippers, and aside from the black swan; a menacing temptress, were shrouded in whiteness and therefore purity. This was all dangerously backlit with the modern invention of gas lighting, creating eerie and surreal shadows and putting the dancers at substantial risk (David, 2016).


Comparatively, Bourne’s Swans were barefoot and bare chested, clad in fluffy white pants with painted foreheads to represent their swan-ness. The rest of the cast wore costumes indicative of many different eras, the monarchy and their parasitic adulators were dressed in what appears to be 1950’s style dresses and military outfitting. However, in the seedy downtown bars, cast members wore 70’s and 80’s inspired costumes in bright colours and fun, tacky fabrics (Jones, 2016). It could be speculated that this represents an idea that the monarchy or the military are antiquated and falling into irrelevance.


The Mariyinsky was a behemoth success, partly due to its monarchical pocket money fuelling and adherence to Russian class structure. Swan Lake was the institutions final triumphant contribution to ballet and this is reflected in its staging; large and lavish backdrops were utilised and no expense was spared on the technologies of the day when it came to production values (Curtis, 1995).


Bourne, in much the same fashion, utilised oversized sovereign symbols, props and furniture to convey the wealth and power of the family in question. Backgrounds and scenery were minimalist and oversized to cleanly convey place and time. Lighting was utilised with finesse to depict time of day including sunrises, day or night and fields of starry skies (Jones, 2016). The modern advantages of technology added greatly to the appeal of Bourne’s work, including the ease with which essential details of the storyline could be conveyed.




Women and Unmet Potential


Women have historically been represented as wilting daisies, cold ice queens and evil temptresses in Swan Lake, and while his attempts at gender subversion attack the binary and homophobia, they do nothing to improve the representation of women. In this particular area there seems to be little to no improvement. As for as reworkings meeting current political and sociocultural climates this essay would argue that Bourne has made an oversight or executed poorly any attempt to redeem the reputation of women in the ballet (Vida, 2003).


It could be suggested that there are themes present in swan lake that have been historically underutilised; for example, having a metamorphic swan woman as a lead is a powerful addition to a storyline and could lend itself to a “deviant otherness” that could be ethically exoticized for a stronger character and more interesting storyline (Vida, 2003). Bourne’s work touches on this idea and embraces the more inherent qualities of the swans by making them more aggressive and giving them a sense of their own politics.





In conclusion, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, staged 100 years after the first successful creation of the ballet is a bold reimagining of a classical work that has inspired some controversy and much adulation. With adaptations to plot, gender roles, technological advances effecting lighting, sound, props and costuming, a production has been created that fits well with the socio-political climate in which it was made, with the exception of women’s representation being frustratingly archetypal. Bourne has succeeded in creating a modern, queer masterpiece that presents a delightful challenge to the values of the classical canon and holds great entertainment value as well as artistic integrity.

So take that then.














Reference List


Curtis, J. M. (1995). Swan Lake at 100. Dance Magazine, 69(6), 38+.


David, A. M. (2016). Blazing ballet girls and flannelette shrouds: fabric, fire, and fear in the long nineteenth century. Textile, Cloth and Culture, 14(2), 244-267. http://www.tandonline.com


Edgecombe, S. F. (2018). A performance between wood and the world: Ludwig II of Bavaria’s queer swans. Theatre Survey, 59(2), 221-248.


Jones, D. L. (2016, December 8). Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, 2012 – P. I. Tchaikovsky – Richard Windsor, Dominic North (HD 1080p) [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/rQsECoq9XGM



Kassing, G. (2017). History of dance. Champaign, United States: Human Kinetics.


Morrison, S. (2018). Swan Lake(s) – Swan Lake – Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky composer – The Royal Ballet, Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov choreography – Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Boris Gruzin cond – Opus Arte 1181, 2015 (1 DVD: 133 minutes [ballet] + 18 minutes [bonus]) – Lac, after Swan Lake – Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky composer – Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, Jean-Christophe Maillot choreography – Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin cond – Opus Arte 1148, 2014 (1 DVD: 93 minutes) – A Swan Lake – Mikael Karlsson composer – Norwegian National Ballet, Alexander Ekman choreography – Norwegian National Opera Orchestra, Per Kristian Skalstad cond – ArtHaus Musik 102195, 2014 (1 DVD: 98 minutes [ballet] + 15 minutes [bonus]). Nineteenth Century Music Review, 15(1), 141-144.  https://doi-org.ezproxy.cqu.edu.au/10.1017/S1479409817000441


Reynolds, N., & McCormick, M. (2003). No fixed points: dance in the twentieth century. London, United Kingdom: Yale.


Scholem, R. (1998). Bourne’s ‘Swan Lake’: ready-to-rumble ballet. Long Island Business News, 45(43), 27A. Retrieved from https://www.go-gale.com


Sontag, S. (2009). Against interpretation and other essays. London, England: Penguin Classics.


Vida, M. (2003). Reworking the ballet: refiguring the body and “Swan Lake”. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Surrey, United Kingdom.