Photos by Kevin ScanlonThank god Matthew Bourne has come along and juiced up dance again, making it watchable and relevant and worthy of both critical and popular acclaim. It is said that what the English choreographer has always wanted to do is a Hollywood musical, and Play Without Words, based on Joseph Losey’s The Servant (starring James Fox and a foxy Dirk Bogarde), for which Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay, is nothing if not cinematic — think Pajama Game meets the sweaty Body Heat, with the perfectly emotional film score to move the story along — plus you can dance to it. Bourne is at the top of his game at the moment, employing 75 dancers in five productions
on several continents. His infamous and career-making Swan Lake (the
longest-running ballet ever) is being revived to tour the U.S. in 2006, and pinup
boy and former company member Will Kemp, called the “James Dean of dance” by Sherry
Lansing, is rumored to be back for a revival of Highland Fling, Bourne’s
roughing up of another classic, La Sylphide (not to be confused
with the more famous Les Sylphides), his take on Trainspotting.
Kemp, who’d played the aggressive lead swan in Swan Lake and then got ravished by The Car Man, jumped ship in Los Angeles in 2002, ending up in Gap ads (apparently Sarah Jessica Parker agreed to star only if Will signed up) and Van Helsing. Trained in the august school of London’s Royal Ballet, Kemp, who never really wanted to play a prince in white tights, is also rumored to have the Johnny Depp role in Bourne’s new ballet, Edward Scissorhands, with Danny Elfman collaborating. Meantime, Mary Poppins, a Disney production Bourne co-directed and choreographed, is breaking box-office records in London’s West End. But if you want to get turned on, and then really get off, even without Will Kemp, Bourne’s Play Without Words, now at the Ahmanson, is the hot ticket. Alan Vincent reprises his role from The Car Man, wielding his sexuality like a blunt instrument and so magnetic and menacing you can’t take your eyes off him for a minute. And Michela Meazza, the Sugar Plum Fairy in Bourne’s Nutcracker!, is glacial and riveting as the fiancée, her sex all bottled up in below-the-knee pencil skirts, demure blouses and stiletto-heeled pumps, but oozing the scent of woman from every pore. The play is so fraught with mounting sexual tension followed by orgiastic resolution — in an expansive vocabulary of compromising positions — it’s hard to believe the dancers didn’t really do anything but dance. One leaves the theater sated, utterly spent. Bourne has hit the perfect mark for this new genre he’s been fooling around with — not a dance, or a play, but truly a play without words, danced, to music.
Sex is always part of what you pay for with dance — it’s a peepshow of sorts, the lean and hard corps de ballet and its principals shown off to full advantage in sheer and skintight fabric, expressing what everybody feels but that the flat surfaces of words cannot express. But dance has been pretty hard up for a couple of decades now. All those threadbare story ballets pantomimed by ballerinas in stiff little tutus and men in tights — a genre that Bourne has plumbed the depths of — are just silly. The lure, for Bourne, has always been the challenge of telling a story through movement. And music, he says, has always been his first love “because it can touch us so deeply.” While the classics have all been fair game for his parody, he insists in “honoring the music” — as he put it an interview with the Weekly backstage at UCLA’s Royce Hall last December, where his send-up of the Nutcracker! was playing to a full house in a city glutted with some 100-plus straight-up versions. “Ballet is dried-up. It’s a dulling experience. There are no new ballets, and no Balanchines or Ashtons working anymore,” he said, referring to New York City Ballet’s George Balanchine and the Royal Ballet’s Sir Frederick Ashton, both held up as the greatest classic choreographers of the 20th century. “I’m not suggesting that I’m in their league. But I keep returning to the classics, as they did, because it isn’t easy to find music like that — a solid, substantial piece of glorious music, like a Tchaikovsky ballet, that was written to tell a story and is structured like a script. I want to do something onstage that makes people listen to that music again.” He has done that, making stars of his dancers and getting more press for his productions and for the classics than anyone since Balanchine or Ashton. Having been championed early on by Ahmanson producer Gordon Davidson, Bourne has always staged his U.S. premieres in Los Angeles, though Play Without Words was workshopped first at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Youngish, sandy-haired and typically rumpled in sneakers, jeans and T-shirt, Bourne is prepossessing and seems to have remained truly unaffected by his enormous success, even surprised that audiences like his choreography so much. “I thought it was great,” I said when I saw him working the crowd at the close of the opening performance — though he hadn’t gotten up onstage to acknowledge the audience’s standing ovation — to which he replied, “I thought the audience was great!” Bourne did go to dance school, though not until the ripe old age of 22, but he learned to be a choreographer, he says, by watching Fred Astaire films over and over and over again. “Astaire is my greatest pleasure, and Swing Time is my favorite Fred and Ginger film. I grew up watching MGM musicals — I loved Cyd Charisse and Ann Miller. Mary Poppins was the very first film I fell in love with, at age 8. And of course there was The Red Shoes, which had quite an impact on me.” But while he’d grown up on musicals, he didn’t see his first ballet, a production of Swan Lake, until age 19, at which point he was already obsessed with theater. “I was blown away by Swan Lake because ballet was so weird and eccentric, like a piece of history that had been preserved perfectly. I was drawn in because I liked its strangeness, but I was looking at it from a particular perspective, and it wasn’t because I thought it was pretty.” Bourne has been asked to direct films but says he prefers working with dancers to actors because they know how to count out every beat in a bar of music, how to strike a pose, with a gesture and an expression that conveys volumes, hold it for the count of four, and then pick up the beat again and move to it. “This is the supreme skill of a trained dancer,” he said, “and one that I completely appreciate. Again, it’s about the music.” Bourne and his dancers have been together for a while now, and have developed, he says, a creative shorthand that allows them to co-create, as they did with what is perhaps the most exquisite scene in Play Without Words, in which Anthony is dressed and undressed in a slow and ritualistic dance by Prentice, his manservant. It was the workshopping of that scene by his dancers that led Bourne to cast each lead in triplicate — a deft stroke of genius, as it turns out, that provides for great choreography as well as the nuance that fully develops the characters’ conflicted relationships. But then Bourne’s dancers are great actors, as all great dancers should be. Despite the provocative subject matter of Play Without Words, an exploration of the dark undertow of sex and its power to undermine and upend relationships — the same treatment Bourne gives all his source material — this work hasn’t the shock value of the overtly homoerotic Swan Lake or The Car Man. The sex is still repressed, as it was at the dawn of the Swinging ’60s, the era in which it is set. “People were still stuck in the old ways but the sexual revolution was imminent,” Bourne said. “The fact that it was still repressed, that people still had to keep secrets, provides great dramatic material. And the sex was so much sexier. Blatant sexuality doesn’t titillate as much as suggestiveness.”