Nobody's Ugly Duckling

Kojak in a tutu? The Cullberg Ballet pursues the bald truth about 'Swan Lake'

Kojak in a tutu? The Cullberg Ballet pursues the bald truth about 'Swan Lake'

A Woody Allen scenario describes her as half-woman, half-swan divided lengthwise, a freak who finds it "nearly impossible to get a bank loan." British choreographer Matthew Bourne has cast her and her cohorts as feral male swans with hairy chests. Ballet of the Dolls director Myron Johnson has reconceived her as Blanche Swan, a wheelchair-using avatar of Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The heroine of that venerable 19th-century ballet, Swan Lake, has played a lot of roles as contemporary choreographers search for new meanings in old classics. So, in fact, has the entire ballet--an amalgam of high art and popular entertainment that cries out for postmodern reinvention. Some 125 years after the ballet's debut was booed by an elite Moscow audience, Swedish choreographer Mats Ek's revisionist Swan Lake, playing at Northrop Auditorium this weekend, catapults this Manichaean tale of good versus evil into the age of contemporary ambivalence.

Performed by Sweden's acclaimed Cullberg Ballet, the 1987 work offers an invigorating mix of offbeat virtuosity, creepy expressionism, and vaudeville shenanigans--Mel Brooks encountering Fritz Lang in a moonlit glade. Ek's prince, a rather doltish adolescent, leaves home and his domineering queen mum in search of life, liberty, and the pursuit of libido. Instead of a sad-sack swan at the mercy of a foul enchanter, he finds an emancipated chick ready to show him the ropes. Ek physicalizes his eccentric characters by splitting open the ballet vocabulary and reconnecting it in odd, affecting ways. His bald and barefoot unisex swans galumph flat-footed across the stage or bounce along like lively toddlers. They throw themselves wildly off balance in stumblebum jumps, only to land in fully extended arabesques.

In Ek's topsy-turvy world, inept courtiers generate slapstick confusion and sunny folk dances reveal a shadowy underbelly. These stylized "character dances," traditionally thrown in for a little local color, become an object lesson to the bewildered prince. Journeying through foreign lands in search of his ideal swan/woman, our hero encounters some truly brutish behavior: A Balkan stud barks like a dog at his cowed women, while a bunch of macho toreadors beat a señorita senseless. Along the way, Ek makes his point about the universal presence of rampaging masculinity and the prince uncovers his sensitive-male side.

Carl Inger, who plays the prince, calls it the most demanding role of his career. "I'm onstage all the time--always on the bite," says Inger, speaking by phone from Sweden. From a geeky guy who trembles at Mom's unyielding directives to an ardent swain wrestling with his two-toned swans, Inger's prince alters his emotional pitch in virtually every scene.

"Mr. Ek uses the human personality, drawing movement from real life," says Lena Wennergren-Juras, one of the Cullberg's artistic directors, also speaking from Sweden. Ek's ability to create realistic, affecting characters within a stylized framework is a family tradition. His mother Birgit Cullberg, who founded the company in 1967, was known for highly dramatic ballets like the astringent Miss Julie, based on August Strindberg's psychological drama.

Ek has also worked as a theater director, developing a broad physical vocabulary and a penchant for merging naturalism with an eerily relevant surrealism. The sinister enchanter in Swan Lake morphs precipitously into the prince's naked mother, while in another scene the prince encounters Orthodox Jews dancing before a giant, deformed clock with numerals like jagged wounds. It's the only section of the ballet that does not use the traditional Tchaikovsky music, as Ek casts this 19th-century Eastern European fairy tale into the nightmares of the 20th century. Instead, these forlorn Hasidim slither and shrug their way through the sinuous notes of a melancholy Jewish folk song--spectral presences on a darkening plain.