Listening to a fairy tale, you don't ask whether pumpkins really turn into carriages or why Little Red Riding Hood can't tell a wolf from her grandmother. It's a story. Things happen because they happen.
Tchaikovsky's ballet "Swan Lake" is this kind of fairy tale. The story doesn't ask to be believed. It's just an excuse for the creation of beautiful images of desire and loss.
But if you try to make it real, as the British choreographer Matthew Bourne and his company do, you invite the audience to ask the kind of questions that fairy tales can't answer.
Though sometimes witty and always easy on the eye, this radical reinvention of "Swan Lake" loses the enchantment of traditional versions without weaving a spell of its own.
Bourne's intention, clearly, is to make something much more like a play than a classical ballet. It's a brave and intriguing notion but a notion is what it remains.
The play Bourne tries to create is, like the original ballet, about a prince who falls for a lover in the shape of a swan. But this basic plot is not exactly riveting. Boy meets swan, boy loves swan, boy loses swan.
To make more of it, Bourne injects three new elements. The prince is imagined essentially as a member of the troubled British royal family of today. He is the victim of a cruel conspiracy by the heartless queen's private secretary. And the swan he falls for is male. This is, then, no longer a fairy tale but a social drama. We are forced to ask what the society is and how it works.
The problem is that Bourne doesn't seem to know. At times, the world on stage is an all-purpose comic opera kingdom, like the Marx Brothers' Freedonia. At others, it is a much more realistic Britain, with tabloids, seedy night clubs, paparazzi and autograph hunters.
The time is just as vague as the place. The 1890s, 1930s, 1960s and 1990s are all suggested at one point or another. We never get a coherent sense of the world in which the action happens.
The second new element, the conspiracy, is even weaker. Bourne borrows bits of "Hamlet" the unhappy prince trapped in a treacherous court and tormented by his mother's lust. But it comes across as a crude parody of Shakespeare with all the over-the-top gestures and none of the subtlety.
The one aspect of Bourne's invention that seems to come out of something real is the gay theme. There's a genuine passion here, and it shows, especially in Will Kemp's vivid and immediate portrayal of the swan.
Apart from Kemp, though, none of the dancers manages to create the strong sense of individual character that is crucial to making the show work as a drama rather than as a gorgeous ballet.
What we're left with, then, is an arresting spectacle. At this level, "Swan Lake" works fine. Lez Brotherston's designs are full of delight and surprise. There are some good visual jokes in a sendup of traditional ballet and a brilliantly zany conjunction of Tchaikovsky's music with disco dancing.
This may be enough to make the time pass pleasantly, but it's not enough to shake off the feeling that there is neither the magic of a fairy tale nor the grit of a drama, neither the pure form of a great ballet nor the depth and complexity of a great play.
Not, by any means, a turkey, but not a graceful "Swan" either.
His royal highness, the Prince, is face down on the sidewalk, and if there were a gutter in sight he would no doubt crawl right into it. It hasn't been a good day. His mother, a Dior-style version of the Evil Queen in Disney's ''Snow White,'' has made her dissatisfaction with him even clearer than usual by slapping him; an especially galling moment of public humiliation at the ballet has already hit the tabloids, and now he has been tossed out of the louche bar where he sought to forget it all.
But for the audience watching Matthew Bourne's ''Swan Lake,'' the real heartbreak comes after the Prince, played by Scott Ambler, rises uncertainly to his feet. He wraps his arms around himself in a barren, solitary embrace; he twirls into a frenzy of self-disgust. Other gestures breathe a pale hopefulness, and they are the saddest of all. They are the movements of a lonely, awkward man aspiring to grace, to connection, to another identity altogether. It's waiting for him just around the corner.
Thus goes the brief, gentle scene that prefaces the Prince's first encounter with a flock of swans in a city park, and when the eerie, muscular birds make their appearance, it feels less bizarre than inevitable. You may have heard by now what they look like, these creatures with the naked torsos of men and white feathered legs and loins. As led by the stunning young dancer Adam Cooper, they're as visually akin to satyrs as swans, with a distinctly feral sensuality. If you had met them earlier, you might have laughed or winced. As it is, you see them as an answer to an unhappy man's prayers. No, they definitely aren't human, but then the Prince, trapped in a world of palaces, protocol and repression, has had more than his fill of humanity.
Not a word is spoken in Mr. Bourne's inspired reconception of Tchaikovsky's storybook ballet, but when you leave the Neil Simon Theater, you find yourself thinking about specific character and conflict in the way you do after a juicy drama. ''I've never been trying to compete with classical ballet,'' Mr. Bourne has said. ''What I'm doing is telling a story.''
The ways in which he does this may be brazen and even vulgar in their literal-mindedness. Yet there's no shaking off the haunted longing and anguish at the evening's center. Watching it arouses the same sensations that good silent movies often do. Initially, it seems antiquated and melodramatic. As it goes on, it acquires a soulful lyricism, transcending its more obvious sensationalism and sentimentality in the way performances of Lillian Gish and Charlie Chaplin did in films like ''Broken Blossoms'' and ''City Lights.'' Clearly, there is an argument to be made for muteness in the theater.
Mr. Bourne, splendidly assisted by the Edward Goreyesque set and costume designs of Lez Brotherston and the Hurell-style lighting of Rick Fisher, sets up his psychological framework carefully. Mind you, it isn't subtle. The oppressive life of the Prince, which deliberately evokes the contemporary soap operas of Buckingham Palace, is signaled by outsize images of crowns and the mechanical rituals of royalty and the people who bow and toady to them.
There will surely be those who object to the stark Freudianism in the portrayal of the Prince's mother (the elegantly hot-and-cold Fiona Chadwick), a tight-lipped monarch who keeps her son at a forbidding distance while treating her own royal guard as a sexual candy store. As for all those satiric visions of paparazzi and decadent hangers-on, including an evil palace secretary (Barry Atkinson) and the Prince's unsuitable girlfriend (Emily Piercy, bringing to mind a skinny Duchess of York) -- well, haven't we seen too much of all that recently?
These elements take on a flavorful piquancy, however, when contrasted to the interior life of its central figure, first seen as a boy (Andrew Walkinshaw) clutching a stuffed animal that is, of course, a swan. Making ''Swan Lake'' a psychological portrait that happens inside its hero's head is nothing new to dance. But Mr. Bourne is particularly clear in aligning our perspective with that of a Prince, a man who has never come to terms with his public or sexual identities.
This is clear in everything from the parody ballet-within-the-ballet, attended by the Prince and his mother, in which an evil goblin figure sports repulsive genitals that look like a fungus, to the climactic nervous breakdown, staged as an Expressionist counterpoint of shadow and glaring light reminiscent of ''The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.'' In between are the two centerpiece dances, that of the swans and that of the revelers at a palace ball, which contrast an idealized (if still menacing) eroticism with its cheaper, real-life incarnation.
Mr. Cooper is the catalyst in both dances, Mr. Bourne's answer to the Good and Evil Swans, Odette and Odile, and he is electrically compelling as each of these antithetical objects of desire. The evening's solid ballast, however, is Mr. Ambler, looking like a cross between Prince Charles and Siegfried Sassoon. His face and body channel and elucidate the dissonance and pain in Tchaikovsky's score (vigorously directed by David Frame and orchestrated by David Cullen), the work of a man who was, after all, a most troubled soul.
One final word: though the Prince's longings (like those of Tchaikovsky) are obviously homoerotic, this ''Swan Lake'' is not, to borrow from Tony Kushner, exclusively a ''gay fantasia.'' The sensuality of Mr. Cooper's swan is, while unquestionably physical, somehow beyond carnal desire. It embodies that abstract, strangely virginal eroticism that sometimes filters through dreams. Worldly glamour is small-time and nasty in this ''Swan Lake''; the flesh is made for cheap thrills. Who wouldn't choose to live in the Prince's swan-filled dreams?
It's been an unusually long migration, but Matthew Bourne's mysterious male swans have finally landed on Broadway, after acclaimed stints in London and Los Angeles and even a pitstop on PBS' "Great Performances." The challenge for this production, which marks U.K. legit impresario Cameron Mackintosh's first Broadway foray since 1992, will be captivating Gotham audiences with the freshness of a concept they may have been hearing about since its debut three years ago. Neither all-male nor all-gay, as fuzzy reports have often described it, Bourne's revisionist "Swan Lake" is a psychosexual pageant liberally laced with humor and mounted with style. Abandoning a hundred years of tradition, Bourne has reimagined the fairy-tale ballet as the story of a young man withering away for lack of love, whose strange communion with a swan both liberates and destroys him.
In the ballet's opening scenes, the regimen of a royal life is swiftly spoofed. In one of Bourne's wittier details, the boy Prince descends from his unnaturally large bed by walking down a staircase constructed of his servants' backs. The Prince himself is under the command of his imperious mother, the Queen, whose iron right hand drags him from public appearance to ship-christening while the left waves genteelly at the masses. (The rather too young-looking Isabel Mortimer ably danced the Queen at the reviewed performance; the principals vary from evening to evening.)
Amid the swirl of photo opportunities, the Prince grows up (Scott Ambler smoothly takes the place of the young Andrew Walkinshaw), but his physical transformation isn't matched by a psychological one: In his cloistered heart the Prince remains a confused boy. The only object of adoration he's been allowed is his mother, but his lavish affection for her is rebuffed in an incestuous pas de deux tinged with the evening's first hint of frustrated love's violence.
A discreetly arranged girlfriend, danced and acted with smashing comic panache by Emily Piercy, only leaves the Prince humiliated when he discovers the discreet arrangement by accident after a drunken evening at a disco. In despair, the Prince finds himself at the edge of a lake and scribbles a suicide note. It's here that Bourne's sometimes too heavy-handed direction gives way to his more graceful choreography, as a flock of strange birds ---danced by young men with feathered legs, alabaster torsos and gazes pregnant with powerful eroticism --- descend upon the Prince and enchant him all the way from misery to ecstasy.
If there seemed to be more miming (and occasionally mugging) than dancing in the ballet's early comic scenes, the balance is redressed in this sublime sequence. Ambler and Adam Cooper, who dances the leader of the flock, have been performing these roles since the production's debut, and they move together and apart with entrancing grace. Here Bourne's choreography leaves its frenetically witty eclecticism behind and establishes its own bold aesthetic (though his myriad influences are never far off: These swans even display a certain affinity for hip-hop at one point).
The show's most arresting image is the Prince's almost fetal embrace of the swan, first seen at the lake and later repeated to devastating effect in the final scene. The arrival in the second act of the swan's human embodiment (also Cooper), a black-leather-clad slash of sexuality who seduces Prince, Queen and country at a royal ball, certainly turns up the show's temperature, but it's the more ethereal communion symbolized by this fantasy embrace --- a boy's need for spiritual affection --- that is its symbolic core.
Bourne has said he refuses to circumscribe his ballet's meaning by declaring the Prince gay, but the electric shock of recognition that registers on Ambler's expressive face when he first sees his swan made flesh clears up that question. Certainly the show will have particular resonance for gay audiences, both for the enchantment of Amber and Cooper's homoerotic pas de deux and the tale's more chilling picture of the spiritual poisoning engendered by sexual and emotional repression.
Lez Brotherston's costumes are a dizzy collage of eras and styles that add zest, and his set designs are smartly effective and economical --- they decorate the production without cluttering it. Rick Fisher's sharp lighting is used to stark dramatic effect in the ballet's last act, as the Prince's psychological destruction is rendered with Hitchcockian flair.
Bourne's final image is as daring as the entire enterprise. Although his risk-taking sometimes leads him into dramatic extravagances (the Tarantino touch of violence in the ball scene I still find objectionable), it's hard not to forgive an artist of such original convictions. By marrying Tchaikovsky's music to the visions of his own imagination, Bourne finds new depths of emotion in the composer's work. It's a superb achievement.