Matthew Bourne doesnt look the way youd 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, whats 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. Im not into shocking people -- not really, Bourne says. The goal is to surprise audiences by not delivering exactly what they think theyve 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 ballets 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
Bournes 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of gay anomie that transformed a traditionally ethereal corps into a sexually feral flock of men -- could easily have been archived under gay theater or contemporary dance theater and largely forgotten by all but a few die-hard advocates.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 its 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 Bournes 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 Bournes version of The Nutcracker to town. Others concern his next big project, a Bourne-ified version of Tim Burtons film Edward Scissorhands. (The rumor floating around is that its world premiere will occur sometime during the Ahmansons 2002--03 season.) And theres talk about Bourne directing a film. Every time I come to L.A., Im approached, he says, and each time it gets a little more concrete. Obviously, I wouldnt just go do an ordinary movie. It has to use what Ive learned from the work were doing now. Its a particular skill the company has developed, and were sort of proud of it. I suppose thats why Ive kept at it.
AMP was founded in 1987 by a group of classmates from Londons 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 didnt 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 doesnt 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 well reject moves that are maybe more dancy or spectacular, because we dont know why were doing it. Its an instinct thing.
In The Car Man, Bourne raised the bar on his own formula with an original story -- a steamy B-movie thriller that borrows equally from Bizets Carmen and James M. Cains hard-boiled tale of lust and murder The Postman Always Rings Twice (both in its 1946 Lana Turner--John Garfield movie incarnation and the 1981 remake with Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson). As in Carmen, Bourne has created a compelling character (Luca) who unlocks the passions and destiny of two typical Bourne misfits -- the sultry, dissatisfied Lana and the gentle and innocent featherweight Angelo. As in Postman, a volatile chain of events is set in motion when a mysterious drifter arrives in the fictional small Midwestern town of Harmony, a dusty backwater burg where the smell of grease and sweat and rampant hormones hangs heavy in the languid summer air.
Though The Car Mans title wittily (some might say heavy-handedly) bows to its musical progenitor, Bourne says that it was never his intention to create another Carmen. There are too many versions of it around, and one can get bored with it. Instead, he and his cast looked to postwar Italian and American movies for inspiration, using a library of more than 50 videos, from Body Heat and Luchino Viscontis Rocco and His Brothers to Fight Club and My Own Private Idaho, that Bourne kept on hand in the rehearsal studio to develop distinctive characters.
Bourne likens how he develops a piece to how film director Mike Leigh works. Improvisation is the first step. When we start rehearsal, he explains, theres nothing to go on apart from an idea and the music. So the story and characters have to be developed through improvisation. Most often with dance, the movement comes first and the character will come out of that. Its the other way round with us. People have to know their characters first, before the movement can be achieved.
For The Car Mans gritty mise en scene, Bourne knew he wanted to replicate the grittier realism of Ossessione, Viscontis 1942 version of Postman. Harmony also conjures up the dusty byways of The Last Picture Show, the claustrophobia of Rebel Without a Cause and every other quintessentially Americana town refracted through Hollywoods wide-screen lens. Harmony, USA, Bourne reminds us, is not merely fictional, its mythological. Likewise, Luca (the Car Man) is equal parts Kerouac and Cassady, James Dean and a young Brando, with some of the Marlboro Man, all rolled into one.
Bourne has been accused by some critics of slapping America upside the head with its own patently storybook images of itself. They worry hes making fun of us. Not true, he says. It could be a small town anywhere that intrigues me. But if wed done small-town Britain, you wouldve seen a little village in the country, and it wouldve been about what goes on behind closed curtains. It doesnt quite have the same sexiness, does it?
People get too hooked up on what comment Im making about America, or women, or gay men. Thats too wide. Car Man is a story. I dont approach the work with a statement to make about issues. I like to have something to say, but it tends to be about the characters. I like that Luca turns into this slobby, guilt-ridden mess in the second act. That says something about how people react differently to a situation -- but its not saying something about all Americans.
Theres a certain delight simply in recognizing the multiple references that arise from The Car Mans parade of film quotes. This continual flow of half-remembered images also makes for an oddly movielike theatrical experience, reflecting Hollywoods claim on the public psyche as well as serving up a palimpsest of our private fantasies and associations. Bourne also employs cinematic techniques such as close-ups, wipes and cross-fades in his work. Part of The Car Mans potency comes from his manipulation of audience focus, his ability to zoom in on incisive details (often occurring at the edge of the stage frame) that drive the narrative by using good old theater magic to create split screens, flashbacks, and freeze-frames.
Bourne saw his first movie, The Sound of Music, when he was just 5 years old; live theater came three years later. Bournes parents encouraged his interest in movies and theater, introducing him to Fred Astaire (whom Bourne counts as a major influence along with ballet choreographer Frederick Ashton) and allowing him the freedom to travel around London by bus to devour every movie, West End musical and play that he could. He didnt attend a ballet -- Swan Lake, as it turns out -- until he was 19, and has been reported as saying he thought it weird. But it was a weirdness that intrigued me, he adds. Id never seen anything really of that kind. I thought it was odd. They moved more quickly than I thought they would -- the swan movements were very fast and eccentric.
But movies had a particular hold on him. I remember anxiously waiting and looking forward to seeing a certain film being screened on television. It was exciting. Its not like today -- you couldnt just tape it, so you cleared your schedule and kept yourself available on that day. A precocious child (he says), Bourne wasnt content just to watch. As far back as he can remember, he was organizing shows -- school productions, song-and-dance numbers for his churchs youth group, sideshow fairs in his familys garden. Starting when he was 6, hed invite the neighborhood in to see shows based on the movies hed recently seen. For tuppence, the public could get tea and biscuits and Bournes recollections of Lady and the Tramp, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Mary Poppins, staged in a room in his house that hed set up as a small theater. He recalls that he took these productions very seriously, and had definite ideas about what he wanted to present, including a gender-bent version of Cinderella in which he played an ugly stepsister and cast his brother in the lead. I dont know where it came from, really, but I thought it was a good idea. Its a very English thing, yknow, the whole tradition of English comedy and Christmas pantomimes.
It may border on cliche to suggest that Bournes local popularity is due to his cinematic inclinations and proclivity for reinvention. Whatever the reason, he has been warmly embraced by Los Angeles audiences as one of our own. L.A. has a certain proprietary claim on Bourne thanks to Center Theater Group artistic director--producer Gordon Davidson, who introduced Bourne to America after bringing Swan Lake to the Ahmanson in 1997. In 1999, Los Angeles was again the site of Bournes next U.S. premiere, Cinderella, and this year CTG stepped in as a co-producer of The Car Mans six-city U.S. tour.
Davidson and the Ahmanson have provided a second home of sorts for Bourne in L.A. When Swan Lake finally made it to Broadway in 1998, it was coolly received by the theater world; this tour, New York isnt even on the itinerary. No one has asked us to come. But I have no great desire to go back there. The theater world was not the giving place I was led to believe. It was highly competitive. [L.A.] is where Ive had all the support. This is where people want to see the work.
When Bourne does return to L.A., it will be with a new company. He recently announced that he was splitting with longtime producing partner Katharine Dore and forming a new company, New Adventures, which will be headquartered at the Old Vic Theatre, where Bourne is now an associate director. Bourne will continue to maintain artistic oversight of the AMP trilogy of hits, but has turned over the business of managing and touring to Dore in order to focus on creating new dance work and revisiting dances created back when AMP was a struggling nonprofit.
Theres a certain grandness to AMP now, and I dont want to be associated with that anymore, he says. I like doing the big pieces, but this new company, which will have all of my longtime dancers, gives me a little more flexibility to do a variety of work.
Immediately up on the agenda is an adaptation of the musical South Pacific with renowned stage director Trevor Nunn. Bourne enjoys a comfortable working relationship with Nunn, whom he worked with last year on My Fair Lady. And New Adventures will have its first outing next summer at the National Theater in England, with an experimental piece created for an intimate in-the-round space. Bourne says he hasnt decided what he will do, but hints that it may be Pinteresque -- you know, all pauses.
Now Bourne is developing a live stage version of Disneys The Little Mermaid. How does this bode for the future of his work? Bourne suffers criticism from both sides. Ive been accused of selling out every time Ive done something new. People feel that youre not doing what you once did. I always feel Im doing the same kind of work I did when I had six dancers and no budget. Theres just more dancers and bigger sets now.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.