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Making "Swan Lake" His Own

Date: Oct 27, 2010


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Matthew Bourne’s celebrated reimagining of Swan Lake has swooped into New York City Center through November 7. Much of the story follows the original ballet (a prince becomes enchanted with a mysterious swan) and the music is as vibrant as ever. But Bourne’s production adds a tumultuous relationship between the sensitive prince and an aloof queen mother, questions about repressed identity, pop references, and huge doses of humor.

Moreover, it transforms the ballet’s gaggle of delicate swan ballerinas into a fierce male ensemble. Odette (the ballet’s lead) is now the most gorgeously macho Swan of the bunch, also appearing as the sexy Stranger at a royal ball.

Flying into the role of the Swan/Stranger is U.K. native Richard Winsor. His skills as a dancer are vital, of course, but his background in film and theatre has helped him put a distinctive stamp on a role that has been played many times. “Some dancers don’t always integrate acting into their work, and I think that’s really important,” he says. “I try to always be present, open and deliver the story in an emotionally accessible way. I use the movement as a means to this end instead of the other way around.”

It was this mindset that sparked Bourne’s interest when he first noticed an eighteen-year-old Winsor in a college dance class. Since then, Winsor has become a staple in Bourne’s company, New Adventures, and he has tackled lead roles in Bourne’s Play Without Words, Edward Scissorhands and Dorian Gray. “If there’s such a thing as a Bourne dancer and if anyone could be called my muse, it’s Richard,” Bourne says. “When I first saw him dance, I knew he was a leading man in the making, partly due to his physical presence, but also because of his interest in acting and creating the character; since I only make narrative work, this is essential. He’s unusual amongst dancers in that it is always the character that interests him first, almost more than the choreography—a complete stage animal.”

Winsor describes himself in a similar way, explaining that he always loved performance and its “adrenaline build up,” but the intensive training at his mother’s dance studio in Nottinghamshire, England was less appealing than sports. At age sixteen, however, when he decided the academic track wasn’t for him, he enrolled in the Central School of Ballet and endured technical training to reap the reward of the stage. In his second year there, Winsor saw the original production of Bourne’s Swan Lake (which won three Tony Awards in 1999) and was enamored with the choreography and energy that would soon become his life. A year later, Bourne hand-picked the teenager to join his company.

“Matthew gives you an opportunity to create,” Winsor says. “Even when I was quite new in the company and nineteen, when working on Play Without Words, he gave Belinda Lee Chapman and I the freedom to work on a table duet. I realized, I was [creating] it myself! He allows you to be so absorbed in the storytelling."

For Swan Lake, Bourne gave Winsor a similar leeway to develop the Swan. “In reality, a swan is a dangerous, mean, strapping bird. So I wanted to make the Swan a living beast—truly animalistic with no restraint of movement,” Winsor says. Case in point: Winsor turns the well-known fluttering of the wings into a tense undulation of the arms, and he uses his flexible torso to both seduce and intimidate the Prince. “Then, for the Stranger who shows up at the ball, I wanted to explore his seductive power, but in a way that went through the movement instead of being bounded by it,” he adds.

Asked for his take on Winsor's interpretation, Bourne says, “I have to admit to being astounded by Richard’s Swan. Being a great actor/dancer, I knew he would be brilliant as the Stranger. But the power and beauty of his Act II Swan was a revelation even to me. I realized that when he puts his mind to it, he can turn his talent to anything.”

Winsor feels the duality of the Swan and the Stranger represents two sides of the struggling Prince, the Swan being “the inspirational, free, loving and open expanse of the Prince’s psyche” and the Stranger being his darker persona. However, he says, "an audience member may see something totally different in the character and that’s wonderful."


Lauren Kay is a dancer and writer based in New York City

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[Photo of Richard Winsor and the male swans by Bill Cooper]