Matthew Bourne: Early Adventures

Posted: June 14th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , | Comments Off on Matthew Bourne: Early Adventures

Celebrating 25 Years: Matthew Bourne’s Early Adventures at Sadler’s Wells, May 21

Having seen Dorian Gray a couple of years ago, I was not, I admit, much inclined to see another work by Matthew Bourne. I am not that drawn to Oscar Wilde’s rather dark and overwrought gothic tale either, but there is in it a psychology that I felt Bourne had treated superficially for his own production purposes – Edinburgh Festival hype notwithstanding. The message I got soon afterwards from the director of Adventures in Motion Pictures, Robert Noble, was that critics who didn’t like Dorian Grey clearly didn’t get it. I was obviously in that bracket (though I didn’t admit it at the time) but I was nevertheless intrigued by the idea of Early Adventures at Sadler’s Wells to mark the 25th anniversary of Bourne’s company.

Was Bourne’s a precocious talent at the outset that Dorian Gray had not lived up to? Would these early works, like the draughtsmanship in early Picasso, show a side of his work that is difficult to discern later on? Sometimes early work, like a band’s first album, is so good its success is difficult to repeat.

It was Chris Nash’s images on the poster that overcame my initial resistance. They are lovely black and white studio shots that give a sense these are old but classic works. I also found a copy of Alastair Macaulay’s extended interview with Bourne in Faber and Faber’s 1999 publication. It’s a great introduction to the choreographer and it was reassuring for me to hear his essentially shy but self-aware voice talking about his work: ‘There were certainly some promoters who thought we were very lightweight – and possibly juvenile. Ours wasn’t considered to be serious work. We certainly wouldn’t have gone down very well at the Bagnolet New Choreography Festival – where all the other new British choreographers of that time were presenting work – or anything like that.” He discusses his training, his way of working, his dancers and talks of such influences as Sir Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as well as contemporary choreographer Lea Anderson and filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock.

Once at Sadler’s Wells, a glance at the printed program gave me my first cause for concern. There are the same classic photographs, but accompanied by a bewildering and artless array of mismatched typography, hyperbolic text and performance images (thanks, but I’ve already bought my ticket) highlighting the 25th anniversary celebrations of the company.

Macaulay had taught Bourne the history of dance at Laban, so there are historical references throughout his works. Spitfire, the first work on the program, is drenched in them. “It was based on the idea of men posing. Partly it was about the poses men do in underwear adverts…And it was also about the way dancers, especially male dancers strike poses in ballet: sometimes they’re poses at the end of a solo, but sometimes they’re poses right in the middle of a dance. And they’re audience-oriented in the way that the underwear ads are camera-oriented. Then, because I had had the idea of making a dance like this for four men posing in underwear, I thought of the most famous dance for four women in nineteenth century ballet, the 1845 Pas de Quatre. So the four men do groupings from the famous lithographs.” Such juxtapositions are designed for comic effect; one of Dudley Moore’s compositions for Beyond The Fringe, was a brilliant variation of the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony on a theme of Colonel Bogey. Bourne’s Spitfire is more complex: he has transposed men for women, male underwear models for romantic ballerinas in tutus, and Leon Minkus’ music – know particularly for the virtuoso ballet variations in Don Quixote – for Cesare Pugni’s romantic score. The original Pas de Quatre was choreographed for the four leading ballerinas of the age, so there would no doubt have been an element of technical and artistic competition at the heart of it, a feature that Bourne reduces to parody without the artistry. What saves Spitfire is the clever contrasting of ideas and the irreverent confounding of our expectations, but only just; it finishes as the novelty begins to fade.

Macaulay comments to Bourne in 1999: “I think now that some people felt uneasy and unsure how to take your early work because, while the dancers were often showing innocence, youthfulness, lightness they were also looking out front at the same time. The mixture of calculation, or knowingness, in address with the innocent lightness of what was going on on stage left some people in the audience thinking, ‘Is this serious? Is this light? What is it?” Bourne answers, “Good point. My view now, with humorous things, is that, if you look as though you think you’re funny, it’s not funny. If you look to the audience as though you’re asking for a response, it doesn’t work. My lesson to performers is: Show what it is that you’re trying to show, but don’t be too obvious about it, and don’t ask for laughs.”

But what if the choreographer himself is too obviously asking for laughs? This seems to be the trajectory of the last two works, Town & Country and The Infernal Gallop. The program note for Town & Country says it is remembered as ‘the piece that most crystallised the Bourne style: gloriously witty and ironic, but also strangely moving and heartfelt.’ It was nominated for outstanding achievement in dance in 1992 and has never been performed since.

Town & Country is set to English light music of the 30s and 40s (Percy Grainger, Eric Coates, Jack Strachey and Noel Coward). Two pieces are well known to English radio audiences as the theme tunes to Desert Island Discs and Housewives’ Choice (we hear the Desert Island Discs theme on a radio in the set’s hotel lobby), so there is a definite aural heritage which may be why Town & Country is billed as ‘a look at notions of national character and identity from a bygone era.’ The Infernal Gallop is set to French light music of the 30s and 40s (the most iconic of which are Edith Piaf’s Hymne à l’Amour and Charles Trenet’s La Mer) and is described as a ‘characteristically witty and astute satire of English perceptions of the French,’ though the subtle difference between a satire of English perceptions of the French and a satire of the French by an English choreographer is lost in Bourne’s gallop for laughs. I think he was wise not to take this to Bagnolet.

Macaulay suggests that perhaps Bourne is embarrassed by the prospect of handling serious emotion: that he’d rather get through emotion by giving it an entirely comic emphasis. Bourne’s answer is illustrative of these early works. “I always go into a piece with serious intent…But I get very pulled in the direction of humour, either by ideas of my own that make me laugh or by hilarious suggestions made by people within the company.” The effect of his hilarious distractions in Town & Country and The Infernal Gallop is to distance himself (and us) from the very characteristics he sets out to portray (if we can take him seriously) and the result is these two works appear as insulated from their national environment as Damien Hirst’s shark from the ocean. The only vestige of national identity is in the music itself which operates, as it were, on an emotional track of its own: close your eyes and you can sense the national characteristics in the music; open them and there is an emotional double take, as with Sir Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance march played on a ukulele by a butler in a chintzy hotel lobby at the beginning of Town & Country, or with Trenet’s La Mer interpreted by ‘an effetely dressing-gowned merman, serenaded by a trio of sailors (exclamation mark)’ in The Infernal Gallop. It is significant that for Swan Lake, in which Bourne is widely thought to have reached creative maturity, he tells Macaulay he resisted the humorous distractions, from whatever the source: “Whenever that came up with Swan Lake, I pulled back and said, ‘No, this isn’t the place to do that. We’re not going to do that here.’ Often I would get quite a lot of opposition. People would say, ‘Look, this is going to be really funny. This is really going to work.’ Obviously Swan Lake does have its funny moments; but I was far more rigorous than before in deciding where humour could and couldn’t occur.”

There are nevertheless two vignettes in Town & Country in which Bourne gets close to emotional expression: his duet to Noel Coward’s song, Dearest Love, and his setting of the song by Percy Grainger, Shallow Brown, at the end of which there is an uncomfortable realization in the audience that a moment of seriousness has just passed; there is neither laughter nor applause. But perhaps the most emotional moment, one in which the audience fully engages, is the accidental death of the hedgehog by an errant clog. The tragic last moments of the little puppet figure and the actions of the mourning rabbit come across with surprising pathos. Is there a clue here to Bourne’s work? Is it possible that his choreographic form is inadequate to express emotion or is form in these early works constantly sabotaged by a preference for overplayed style and comedy? I can’t help feeling it’s a mixture of the two. Although there may well be something in Bourne’s imagination and sense of theatre that is temperamentally suited to the expressive world of the marionette, the problem is more basic. In Peter Hall’s exploration of form and language in drama, compiled in ‘Exposed by the Mask’, he comes to the conclusion that ‘performance always has to have the equivalent of a mask in order to transmit an emotion. It must have a mask, even if it is not a literal mask. It needs the equivalent if it is to deal with primal passions. It demands form – either in its text, or its physical life, or its music. All these can act like a Greek mask. Only then can strong feeling be dealt with.’

In Apart from a lovely flowing episode of entrances and exits for the dancers on scooters – Ashton’s Les Patineurs on wheels – one of the most effective scenes in Town & Country is a choreographed version of the station meeting between Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in David Lean’s film, Brief Encounter. Instead of one couple, there are two, which gives Bourne the opportunity to play them in unison to great effect until the very end, when one woman finds herself unexpectedly alone. It also explains why the slow movement of Sergei Rachmaninov’s 2nd piano concerto finds itself on the list of English music: it accompanies the original film soundtrack.

When a choreographer is already over the top, what happens in a finale? Over the top on speed. But at the very end of The Infernal Gallop as we are about to relish the energy of Offenbach’s Gaité Parisienne, Bourne catches us unawares and beautifully understates the cancan: a masterful stroke that ironically brings the house down.