By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Matthew Bourne doesn‘t look the way you’d expect. To judge from the critics, one would imagine the 41-year-old director-choreographer is a raffish and daring provocateur, boldly thrashing theatrical conventions. But in person, what‘s striking is his quaint English politeness, the understated, almost suburban appearance -- cropped sandy blond hair, collegiate dress, an easy lope to his walk. Nothing about his boyish, Opie-next-door looks fits my image of the controversial auteur. Nothing in his soft-spoken demeanor reads as particularly radical or shocking -- adjectives that have been applied to the successful string of dance productions he has created for his London-based company, Adventures in Motion Pictures. ”I’m not into shocking people -- not really,“ Bourne says. ”The goal is to surprise audiences by not delivering exactly what they think they‘ve come to see. But,“ he adds with a sly smile, ”I do like making them feel slightly uncomfortable.“
For the better part of the last decade, Bourne and AMP have set about reinventing a high-art canon of stalwart if well-worn ballet classics, retrofitting them with decidedly contemporary sensibilities and sexual mores. As one dismissive British dance critic sniffed, Bourne has a habit of ”turning ballet’s older masterpieces upside-down and shaking them to see what falls out of their pockets.“ What falls out -- some call it dance drama, others a form of musical theater -- is audacious, ironic and often homoerotic. And, as it turns out, wildly popular. a
Bourne‘s 1995 coup de theatre Swan Lake -- a sensitive tale of gay anomie that transformed a traditionally ethereal corps into a sexually feral flock of men -- could easily have been archived under gay theater or contemporary dance theater and largely forgotten by all but a few die-hard advocates. Instead, it has been embraced by an eclectic fan base of queer theorists, Broadway enthusiasts and confirmed ballet haters; has won multiple theater and dance awards (including three Tonys); and to date has been seen by more than a million people worldwide. And it’s opened a door for a fresh and economically viable new form of entertainment. Bourne has made dancing fun again.
The crossover success of Swan Lake, Cinderella and now his latest piece, The Car Man (currently winding up an eight-week run at the Ahmanson Theater), has as much to do with his narrative ingenuity as it does with his witty visual double-entendres, elaborate production design or decision to infuse a storyline with deliciously frank sexuality. Although his work is dressed in the trappings of irreverence, what has audiences returning again and again is Bourne‘s knack for crafting sincere stories designed for an ironic generation.
While in Los Angeles for The Car Man, Bourne has been taking nonstop meetings. ”Everyone in town is talking to Matthew about something,“ says Ahmanson press associate Ken Werther. Some of these conversations are about bringing Bourne’s version of The Nutcracker to town. Others concern his next big project, a Bourne-ified version of Tim Burton‘s film Edward Scissorhands. (The rumor floating around is that its world premiere will occur sometime during the Ahmanson’s 2002--03 season.) And there‘s talk about Bourne directing a film. ”Every time I come to L.A., I’m approached,“ he says, ”and each time it gets a little more concrete. Obviously, I wouldn‘t just go do an ordinary movie. It has to use what I’ve learned from the work we‘re doing now. It’s a particular skill the company has developed, and we‘re sort of proud of it. I suppose that’s why I‘ve kept at it.“
AMP was founded in 1987 by a group of classmates from London’s Laban Centre, choreographers who shared repertory evenings. By 1991, all the members save for Bourne had left to pursue other interests -- one member joined the Pet Shop Boys on tour, another started his own company -- and Bourne was left wondering whether to continue or not. He decided to put on one last show, a Noel Coward--esque spoof on Englishness called Town & Country. According to Bourne, the piece turned out to be a major turning point in his career. He found a cadre of dedicated dancers (including Etta Murfitt and Scott Ambler, now AMP associate artistic directors) and solidified the AMP formula. ”It formed our way of working -- the sense of humor, the idea of calling upon any kind of influence to say what we wanted to say. We had a country clog dance, and a dance on scooters. It was all about the ideas and trying anything to make it work.“
And the show was entertaining -- a feature that set it apart from much of the London contemporary-dance scene. It drew audiences that didn‘t usually attend dance concerts. ”It did shake things up a bit, and I think start a trend toward more audience-friendly work. I want the audience to have a good time. And I want them to get it, without having to have it explained in a program note.“ The goal, he says, is to create a world where the movement doesn’t stand out as being something odd. ”Anything that is very physical can be choreographed, but it all has to come from the characters and the story. Often we‘ll reject moves that are maybe more dancy or spectacular, because we don’t know why we‘re doing it. It’s an instinct thing.“