Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is a masterpiece that changed the way I view classical ballet as a queer person. Bourne’s reimagining of the classic story, Swan Lake, replaces all of the female swans with their male counterparts. Instead of classical white tutus, male swans are clad in only delicate feathery breeches, revealing their chiseled physiques to the audience. This juxtaposition of strength and fragility through costuming changes the traditional perception of the swans from classically romantic to sensuously carnal. As the Prince tentatively touches a male swan he foreshadows his inner struggle to accept the love he feels for him. This moment serves as a calling card for young gay male dancers to embrace who they are.

Audiences are often not used to seeing the love between two men told through dance, and Matthew Bourne has seemingly shown us a beautiful, sensual love story. The way that Bourne weaves this story, carefully considering the accessibility and complexity, he establishes a new classic that has gained popularity among both the critics and the general public. Still, even as Bourne embraces the nuances of the inner struggle to find one’s identity, Bourne refused to attach the queer label to his work in an attempt to keep his story universal. Although this ballet was culturally received as supporting gay rights, Matthew Bourne has explicitly denied that this was his only intention. Instead of embracing the critics’ labelling of the work as the “Queer Swan Lake,” he pivots the narrative by announcing that the prince is not a gay man; he is just a Prince experiencing inner turmoil and the swan represents the freedom he seeks.

My humanities moment is not Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake and the joy and identity I found within it, but instead is an interview created for TenduTV in 2011 entitled “Matthew Bourne: Refreshing the Classics and Winning Audiences Over,” during which he renounced any gay readings of the work. I was so affected by this ballet that he created, that hearing him brush off the queerness that seemed so obvious in his work left my soul crushed. Bourne claimed that he doesn’t want his Swan Lake vision to be labeled as “just a gay story,” choosing instead to emphasize its universal appeal, and of course implying in the process that gay stories are only suitable for gay audiences. I, on the other hand, believe that identity-specific stories can be relatable, and that this story shares a universal message about wanting to be loved and cared for. I believe that the protagonist’s sexuality does not detract from the work’s appeal, instead it humanizes the gay community by showing their wants and struggles.

Bourne’s decision to brush the queer influences in his work under the rug are supported by a long history of queer-erasure in dance culture more broadly. Ballet dancers, choreographers and critics have attempted to separate the art from queer culture for centuries, going back as far back as King Louis XIV and the form’s origins. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, composer of so many beloved ballets, including The Nutcracker, suffered from lifelong depression and may have committed suicide, in part because of the pain of having to live in the closet. Today, I have seen many companies comprised of mostly gay men steer away from being labeled a gay company for fear of being ostracized by a mainstream audience. Homosexual men who have given their lives to the craft of ballet long for proud representation, and it was a tragedy that Bourne chose to take this away from us, even as he so obviously put it on stage.

As a young dancer, classical ballet training forced me to learn only heterosexual princely characters based on my appearance. I fought back against these assumptions through my gender non-conforming appearance, at which point I was discarded and my talent deemed wasted. This style of education failed to account for my desire for self-expression and creativity as a budding artist; they asked me only to imitate a masculine ideal that was not part of who I am. Just as the Prince in Bourne’s Swan Lake longs for reprieve from his mother’s quest to find him an acceptable bride, male ballet dancers seek freedom from their oppression from centuries-old values.

The Prince in this story goes to the swan lake to hide himself from the world, just as I and countless others were forced to hide our sexuality for our own safety. I was forced to hide who I was from my parents, kids at school, and my dance teachers. Embracing my sexuality was not an option in the ballet school I attended, and in fact I was mocked for my appearance. When I came out, my dance teachers were the most repulsed by how I wanted to express my gender identity. In an industry that was built by queer people, they only embraced boys who fit their mold of who a “man” is in classical ballet. Recognizing the many queer influences in ballet history can help to bring us out of the shadows and into the increasingly diverse field of public opinion, allowing everyone to embrace our differences.

Despite Bourne’s rejection of gay interpretations of his work, I believe the evidence for that meaning is too clear to deny. Bourne breaks heteronormative boundaries by choosing a man to play the swan that attempts to protect the Prince. I see two beautiful men embracing each other in a tender way that, yes, maybe shouldn’t have to be labeled as gay, but I clung to this break from tradition as a sign of romantic acceptance. While I agree that cultural traditions of heteronormativity handicap young minds, and that it is wrong to automatically label male intimacy, or anything a male does outside the macho sensibility, as feminine or gay, the romantic overtones of Bourne’s work are undeniable. I am not the only queer person to see it, as Dr. Kent G. Drummond states: “In a broader context, (Matthew Bourne) also forces a long-simmering relationship between homosexuality and dance out of the closet and into mainstream popular culture” (Drummond 2003). For these reasons, and many others, gay men – a group of individuals wanting to be accepted – still claim and cling to Bourne’s work even as he fails to return the embrace.

Bourne’s Swan Lake was a catalyst for gay men wanting to dance as themselves in the ballet world, and the success of the work additionally proves that two men dancing together in a loving and intimate way can be beautiful and marketable. It is a shame that even after the work’s adoring reception, Bourne was afraid that his work would be seen one-dimensionally and that society lacked the open mind to receive all that he had created. My two-fold humanities moment is the moment of how this ballet changed me, and the moment when Bourne’s interview changed my views on this ballet.

I hope that Bourne’s views on representation have changed as society has evolved. I was hurt by seeing someone fail to give credit to a community that needs uplifting. When leaders fail, the community has twice as much work to do. Although my thoughts on the work have shifted, I can speak to the normalization of two men tenderly embracing that Bourne inadvertently created with this ballet. The embrace between the Prince and Swan inspires me to create work that is defined by who I am; to embrace who we are and where society is going. Young gay boys dreaming of dancing professionally will continue to cling to this work, dreaming to one day experience this type of freedom. I believe that a future of gender equality is just beginning to peek over the horizon.

Kent G. Drummond (2003). “The Queering of Swan Lake.” Journal of Homosexuality, 45:2-4,235-255, DOI: 10.1300/J082v45n02_11

– George C. Berry (MFA Candidate in Dance, University of Alabama)