a desperate and tragic message encrypted in 1875, read and misunderstood by millions, deciphered in 1998.

Yesterday, we went to see the Matthew Bourne production of Swan Lake, which is in NYC at City Center for just one more week. And while the production was not flawless – the dancing overall was exceedingly sloppy – I found myself really really moved, to the point where I got pretty depressed thinking about queerness and suicide and Tchaikovsky and 1890 and 2010.

I’ve always loved the music for Swan Lake. And in a way that’s hard to describe, I’ve always felt like that music – and most of Tchaikovsky’s music – is very queer. How music can be queer when it doesn’t have any words is a good question, and one I’ll be trying to articulate in a blog post later this week – so – stay tuned. But for now I’ll just say that there’s something about the beauty and the melancholy in his music that really resonates with my experience of queerness. Tchaikovsky’s most beautiful pieces have always seemed to me to be expressions of queer desire or queer identity (his brother and biographer said that “Romeo and Juliet could not have been written” without his agonizing and unrequited love for a classmate named Vladimir Gerard (thanks, Mark, for the tip on that story!)), but because of the repression and hostility of his age, they had to be written in code – translated into an achingly beautiful format that nevertheless obscured and hid away their true meaning. So it’s easy to hear and feel and love the music while missing what their composer was trying to say.

And then – in 1998 – this production comes along. I don’t know a lot about Matthew Bourne or the history or creation of this piece – whether it was all him or another unsung artist or a whole lot of awesome brilliant folks collaborating – but to me it’s something of a miracle: the time and the place and the people were finally right for this message to be deciphered, for the layers or code to be peeled back to reveal the gorgeous tragic queerness at the center of the story Tchaikovsky was trying to tell.

And whether the actual story of this production is specifically the story that Tchaikovsky wanted to tell is not the point (remember, he did not write the scenario for the original). For me, the essence of the story gets to the profound truth of Tchaikovsky’s life as a gay man who felt that he could not live openly, whose whole life was an attempt at cryptography, a way to take the real message of who he was and distort it so no one could see the truth (Leo Tolstoy said “I am very sorry for Tchaikovsky… sorry as for a man about whom something is not quite clear”). This Swan Lake is about trying to embrace who you really are, even if it kills you, because to live without embracing it will kill you too.

P.S. – The depression lasted until I was in my costume and about to head out for Halloween partying. Stay tuned for a much more upbeat blog post about that.

Posted on: October 31, 2010, by : Sam J. M.
File under: Blog