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of gay anomie that transformed a traditionally ethereal corps into a sexually feral flock of men — could easily have been archived under gay theater or contemporary dance theater and largely forgotten by all but a few die-hard advocates.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.“
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 Bizet‘s Carmen and James M. Cain’s 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 Man‘s 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 Visconti’s 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, ”there‘s 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. It’s the other way round with us. People have to know their characters first, before the movement can be achieved.“
For The Car Man‘s gritty mise en scene, Bourne knew he wanted to replicate the grittier realism of Ossessione, Visconti’s 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 Hollywood‘s wide-screen lens. Harmony, USA, Bourne reminds us, is not merely fictional, it’s 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 he‘s making fun of us. Not true, he says. ”It could be a small town anywhere that intrigues me. But if we’d done small-town Britain, you would‘ve seen a little village in the country, and it would’ve been about what goes on behind closed curtains. It doesn‘t quite have the same sexiness, does it?
“People get too hooked up on what comment I’m making about America, or women, or gay men. That‘s too wide. Car Man is a story. I don’t 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 it‘s not saying something about all Americans.”
There’s a certain delight simply in recognizing the multiple references that arise from The Car Man‘s parade of film quotes. This continual flow of half-remembered images also makes for an oddly movielike theatrical experience, reflecting Hollywood’s 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 Man‘s 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. Bourne’s 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 didn‘t 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. “I’d 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. It‘s not like today — you couldn’t just tape it, so you cleared your schedule and kept yourself available on that day.” A precocious child (he says), Bourne wasn‘t content just to watch. As far back as he can remember, he was organizing shows — school productions, song-and-dance numbers for his church’s youth group, sideshow fairs in his family‘s garden. Starting when he was 6, he’d invite the neighborhood in to see shows based on the movies he‘d recently seen. For tuppence, the public could get tea and biscuits and Bourne’s recollections of Lady and the Tramp, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Mary Poppins, staged in a room in his house that he‘d 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 don’t know where it came from, really, but I thought it was a good idea. It‘s a very English thing, y’know, the whole tradition of English comedy and Christmas pantomimes.”
It may border on cliche to suggest that Bourne‘s 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 Bourne’s next U.S. premiere, Cinderella, and this year CTG stepped in as a co-producer of The Car Man‘s 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 isn’t 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 I‘ve 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.
“There’s a certain grandness to AMP now, and I don‘t 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 hasn’t 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 Disney‘s The Little Mermaid. How does this bode for the future of his work? Bourne suffers criticism from both sides. “I’ve been accused of selling out every time I‘ve done something new. People feel that you’re not doing what you once did. I always feel I‘m doing the same kind of work I did when I had six dancers and no budget. There’s just more dancers and bigger sets now.”