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Matthew Bourne’s Male Swans and the Aesthetics of Romantic Ballet

  • Journal of Modern English Drama
  • Abbr : JMBARD
  • 2019, 32(2), pp.123-151
  • Publisher : 한국현대영미드라마학회
  • Research Area : Humanities > English Language and Literature > English Literature > Contemporary English Drama
  • Published : August 31, 2019

Jihay Park 1

1고려대학교

Accredited

ABSTRACT

Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake (1995) is a contemporary rendition of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, an icon of nineteenth century romantic ballet. The most radical aspect of Bourne’s remake was the change in the sex/gender of the swans. In Bourne’s retelling, instead of the elegant and sylphlike female swans of the classical version, the masculine and feral male swans invade the stage. What should be noted concerning men/masculinity in Bourne’s production is that men/masculinity on stage has been the subject of critical derision in romantic ballet. The strong aversion against men/masculinity was based on the idea of beauty in romantic ballet which was grounded in nineteenth-century gender ideology. Influenced by late romanticism, romantic ballet became an art form that expresses an idea of ideal beauty by producing an illusion of ethereal lightness and otherworldliness, and dancers aspired to the condition of disembodied spirits. As romantic ballet critics Théophile Gautier and Jules Janin criticized, massive and muscular men were ugly, monstrous and animal-like to produce such an illusion. Such misandry in ballet was based on the nineteenth-century bourgeois gender ideology. First, the notion of male body as incapable of transcending natural lusts was incongruous with the ballet ideal. Second, the physical prowess male dancers displayed through energetic leaps and turns reminded of the untamable working-class body. Third, the fear for homosexuality forbade men from enjoying men dancing on stage. Based on such exploration of the aesthetics of romantic ballet, this article argues that Bourne’s Swan Lake is, to apply José Muñoz’s concept of ‘disidentification’, a disidentificatory performance that simultaneously works with and against the traditional gender ideology undergirding the idea of ideal beauty in romantic ballet. Bourne’s rendition works with the normative beliefs about sex/gender by recycling animal-like men/masculinity in his reimagination of swans as wild and masculine. Bourne envisioned his swans to be more of an animal and he wanted to show the wildness of them. By having an all-male corps of dancers perform the wildness of swans by imitating actual swans’ movements with their masculine bodies exposed, Bourne works with the middle-class idea of men/masculinity as animal-like and monstrous. Bourne’s remake transgresses the prevailing gender ideology by making the male swans lyrical and beautiful. Bourne envisioned to create “a beautiful male creature-person”, and by combining the movements of actual swans with classical ballet technique and thereby presenting an idea of masculine beauty, Bourne works against the idea of men/masculinity as ugly. Moreover, Bourne disobeys the heteronormative view by relating the recognition of masculine beauty to the recognition of homosexual desire. By inserting sensuous movements that are irrelevant to the movements of actual swans or classical ballet technique—most notably the draping of the arms from the head—, and having these movements to arouse sexual desire in the Prince, Bourne overthrows the prevalent heterosexism in romantic ballet.

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