The Gay Cygnet-ture

Swan Lake is the Mecca of the ballet world. Every choreographer and dancer has either made a pilgrimage there, or looks to it for inspiration. From Miss Piggy in Swine Lake, to Matthew Bourne’s recent all-male version on Broadway, the world’s most popular ballet has inspired countless remounts, remakes, and spin-offs.

Throughout the ballet’s 122-year history, the story of Swan Lake has been peculiarly homo. You can trace a direct line from James Kudelka’s just opened version to 1877, when the ballet first premiered in Moscow.

It’s a fascinating, troubled, often sordid tale about the dangers of passionate, romantic love.

The most obvious and important link to all Swan Lakes is Peter Tchaikovsky’s music, with its beautifully lush melodies moving inexorably to their dissolution.

Tchaikovsky is one of the few classical composers whose homosexuality is both readily acknowledged and considered important to his music.

Repeatedly depressed and suicidal, Tchaikovsky’s “neurotic tendencies” were compounded by, if not the result of, his guilt over his homosexuality and his attempts to repress it. When he was busy composing, however, he became elated, even manic. It’s out of such turmoil that Swan Lake was conceived.

He was commissioned to write the ballet in 1875, during one of the strangest periods in his life. In 1876 he had made up his mind to wed as a way to alleviate his depression. And he did marry the following year, a few months after the premiere of Swan Lake.

Tchaikovsky married a woman who would be described now as a stalker. Antonina Milyukova was an ardent fan who sent Tchaikovsky letters declaring her devotion, claiming that if he did not marry her, she would kill herself. Intriguingly, Tchaikovsky did marry her. But he fled from Milyukova after a few months and tried to kill himself.

Later, in 1878, he would wrote to his brother: “Only now, especially after the story of my marriage, have I finally begun to understand that there is nothing more fruitless than not wanting to be that which I am by nature.”

King Ludvig II of Bavaria was a contemporary of Tchaikovsky and another mad homosexual. His life is an eerie parallel to Swan Lake’s doomed Prince Siegfried.

Ludvig ruled from 1864 to 1886. A compulsive builder, he is most famous now for the construction of Neuschwantstein (which means new swan rock), the whimsical castle upon which Disneyland’s eponymous castle is based. He was an extravagant patron of the arts in general, and in specific, of Richard Wagner’s. Despite machinations by his aunt, Ludvig never married and had a number of gay lovers.

And Ludvig was besotted with swans. Raised in Joshenschwangau (highland of swans), he had Neuschwantstein’s walls covered with murals depicting scenes from Wagner’s operas, especially Lohengrin, the story of a heroic swan prince.

After he was deposed and detained in his castle, Ludvig escaped and drowned in a lake.

Though there are numerous sources of swan stories – from traditional fairy tales and classical myths to the stories of Hans Christian Anderson – Tchaikovsky must have known of this romantic, swan-loving king, especially considering that Tchaikovsky went to Bayreuth (the construction of which Ludvig paid for) to hear the first performance of the complete Ring cycle by Wagner.


Even if not a direct inspiration for Swan lake, Ludvig does enter the ongoing homo story of the ballet in 1976 with John Neumeier’s ballet, Illusions: Swan Lake, where King Ludvig replaces Siegfried, and where his homosexuality is compared to that of Tchaikovsky’s.

The 1967 Swan Lake, on which Kudelka’s new version is based, was choreographed by Erik Bruhn (after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov). Bruhn was then considered the best male dancer in the world. The title of most famous male dancer belonged to his lover, Rudolph Nureyev.

Talk about Rothbart versus Siegfried. Never did two greater opposites pair, both off-stage and on. Nureyev was darkly temperamental and flamboyant; Bruhn, 10 years his elder, was cool, assured and proper. It’s as if Dionysius had moved in with Apollo.

It is said that Bruhn feared being overwhelmed by the sexually voracious and emotionally demanding Nureyev.

The National danced Bruhn’s Swan Lake when the company made its New York debut in 1973, beginning a 26-year-old love affair between the company and US critics. Nureyev himself would later dance in Bruhn’s version of Swan Lake, and other classics, partnering with the likes of Veronica Tennant and Karen Kain, helping to raise their profiles to top international stardom.

But Nureyev maintained that Bruhn had stolen some of his ideas for Swan Lake. And that was one of many points of growing animosity between the two.

(Bruhn died in 1986, after only three years as the National’s artistic director, many commentators assume the cause was AIDS; Nureyev died of AIDS in 1993.)

Torontonians are now treated to yet another version of Swan Lake with a gay choreographer at the helm. In Kudelka’s version, Von Rothbart returns, this time as a Trickster character, quick to prey upon his conflicted victims.

Rothbart is not just offering passion, homo or otherwise, he’s mocking the arrogance of the militaristic court and of hide-bound society.

In Kudelka’s words, this is a “millennial” Swan Lake. Think of it as a gay Titanic, where our dangerous love goes on.

The contributor photo for Gordon Bowness

Gordon Bowness (he/him) is the executive editor of Xtra. With a 30-year career covering the LGBTQ2S+ community, Gordon is also the founding editor of Go Big magazine and In Toronto (now In Magazine). He is an English speaker and lives in Toronto.

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