Magazine article The New Yorker

Class Act; Dancing

Magazine article The New Yorker

Class Act; Dancing

Article excerpt

Matthew Bourne, who is probably the most acclaimed choreographer in England today, founded his first troupe, campily called Adventures in Motion Pictures, in 1987--a ragtag seven-member group that tooled around England in a minivan putting on outrageous shows. Bourne eventually became famous for his "deconstructions" of the classics, those irreverent updatings which the Europeans like so much. His deconstructions, or the ones I saw, were worth liking. He made a "Cinderella" set during the Blitz, a "Carmen" that took place in a garage, a "La Sylphide" about Glasgow's drug scene. (That show opens in a public toilet.) Most popular was his "Swan Lake," with its dangerous-looking, all-male pack of swans. This production, created ten years ago, is still running, in Japan. Others of his creations are touring elsewhere. Bourne's work, it seems, goes everywhere except New York. So far, we have seen only two of his shows. The "Swan Lake" opened on Broadway in 1998. Now, almost seven years later, his "Play Without Words," a steamy drama of class conflict set in sixties London, is at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

So Bourne comes to us rarely, but whenever he does there is a big, long fuss in the press about whether his work is dance or drama. This is ridiculous. Theatrical dance, throughout its history, has swung back and forth between storytelling and abstraction. For every Marius Petipa there was a Michel Fokine, for every Balanchine an Agnes de Mille, insisting that movement had to "mean" something. In the end, it never mattered. Narrative or abstract, some dance shows were good, and some weren't. But Bourne, for his own reasons, has revived this weary debate. He comes, as he has put it, from "Cockney East London," so he presumably has some feelings about social class. Furthermore, he didn't see his first ballet until he was nineteen, and didn't take his first dance lesson till he was twenty-two, so he may, in the past, have had misgivings about his credentials. In interviews, he has taken on these issues aggressively, casting them in terms of real life versus some other, less vital condition. Dancers, he told Jesse Green, of the Times, are narrow, not like him. While they were shut up in a ballet studio, he was "going out and, you know, living a bit"--seeing Fred Astaire movies and M-G-M musicals. As for today's concert dance, it, too, is cloistered, to the extent that it is abstract. "I can't bear it," he said to Green, "when people come forward and just do a turn in the air for no reason." He, by contrast, is a storyteller, an entertainer. One must read between the lines here. Abstract means snobbish, bad. Narrative means democratic, good.

I don't know to what extent these statements are heartfelt. They may just be publicity. Bourne wants a big audience--he wants to be an M-G-M musical. So the talk about movie-deprived dancers and motivationless air turns may be his way of saying, "Come to my show. It's not one of those effete things which the nobs seem to like--it's about life." If that's what he's doing, fine. Whatever works. But if he truly thinks that dance, because it is fundamentally abstract, is inconsequential, then one has to ask why he goes on making it. And so well.

"Play Without Words," in its acidulous look and tone, is based on a number of English films from the nineteen-fifties and sixties, but above all it derives from Joseph Losey's 1963 "The Servant," and it takes its plot from Harold Pinter's screenplay for that chilling movie. Anthony, a young upper-class fellow, has just bought a town house in Chelsea, where he drinks a lot of whiskey neat and necks with his equally well-born fiancee, Glenda. To maintain his new establishment, Anthony has hired a rather creepy manservant, Prentice, who fawns on Anthony and then smirks at him behind his back. Glenda and Prentice do not like each other. Prentice brings in a second servant, a maid named Sheila, who at first seems a mousy little thing but is soon slithering around the kitchen in a tennis sweater and not much else. …

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