A male swan’s spell

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Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake” Photo credit: Craig Schwartz

I have this fantasy about Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake.”

I imagine this wonderfully wholesome and naive family wandering into the show in search of a little culture. It’s a ballet after all, and Tchaikovsky.

They sit through the production almost in a sorcerer's spell -- transfixed and amazed.

In the car ride home, the daughter asks, bewildered, “Why were all the swans men?”

And almost in unison, teenage Timmy in the back seat and Mom in the front chime in, “And why were they so sexy?”

Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake” is the production that 24 years ago catapulted Mr. Bourne’s work into the international spotlight. Famously, he reimagines Tchaikovsky’s ballet about women trapped as swans by an evil sorcerer's spell -- into the tragic and heroic story of a closeted prince discovering a secret world of male love.

It’s easy to reduce the ballet to that gesture, or to see it as a remount of an old production whose time has passed. But Mr. Bourne’s work is still beautifully relevant and vastly more complex than a single idea.

If you’ve never seen one of Mr. Bourne’s ballets, they are deeply theatrical and stunning wordless narratives. He tells a story almost in the mode of a silent movie, interspersed with dance. Though no one speaks, the storyline is crystal clear and accessible. In that sense, it’s almost dance-for-people-who-can’t-handle-dance. If ballet isn’t your thing, you can hold onto the plot and make it through.

But my guess is that even the most ballet-resistant among you will leave changed by the dancers.

Part of the show’s particular magic is that it resists a simple, singular story. This isn’t an easy, tragic tale of a gay prince finding his gay swan. Instead, Mr. Bourne explores this gender-reversing notion with a passion and complexity that banishes any simple binary.

It’s breathtaking to see a stage full of bare-chested men competing and preening and seducing -- and, yes, dancing. Seeing “Swan Lake” here and now, in L.A. in 2019, the culture seems to have caught up to Mr. Bourne's ballet rather than passed it by. And, lest we all get caught up in a naive progressive fairytale, things still end tragically.

So if you’re that wonderfully wholesome and naive family looking for a little high culture with your curious teens, what better way to have a conversation about gender and sex and evil spells than gazing at a stage full of half naked men?

And if you’re looking for a work of art that’s as poignant and beautiful as it was a quarter of a century ago, this “Swan Lake” fits the bill.

“Swan Lake” plays at the Ahmanson Theatre downtown through January 5.

For info on the show, and to subscribe to the weekly KCRW theatre newsletter with my picks for what to see and the best theatre of 2019, check out kcrw.com/theatre.