Dance: Matthew Bourne's Early Adventures

By Levene, Louise | The Spectator, April 15, 2017 | Go to article overview

Dance: Matthew Bourne's Early Adventures


Levene, Louise, The Spectator


'Modern' dance was no laughing matter in 1987. Harold King, director of the now-defunct London City Ballet, cattily typified it as 'lesbians in bovver boots playing a mouth organ and banging a drum on the banks of the Thames'. Camp, funny and unashamedly 'accessible', even Matthew Bourne's earliest efforts were a far cry from the earnest output of his more contemporary contemporaries as his 30th anniversary retrospective, Early Adventures, reminds us.

Bourne's early pieces were conceived on a modest scale with taped music and only a handful of dancers, but the works in the current triple bill show that his gift for creating character and narrative was evident from the start. The young man from Walthamstow had spent his stage-struck youth watching plays, musicals, ballets and vintage movies with a magpie eye, saving up gestures and steps that would be refashioned into his work.

He came unusually late to formal dance training, signing up for a BA at London's Laban Centre at the age of 22. The Laban was never intended as a technical hothouse (the Times's John Percival always privately referred to it as 'the Banal Centre') but it taught Bourne how to structure his ideas and fed his passion for dance history.

The programme is packed with balletic and cinematic in-jokes but the most striking thing about the triple bill is its extraordinary, warm-beer-and-bicycles take on all things English. 'Watch With Mother' and 'Town and Country' feature lashings of Eric Coates and Percy Grainger, riding breeches, yokel smocks and a mile of grey flannel. Even the larky 'Infernal Galop', made in 1989 to mark the bicentenary of the French Revolution, shows the French through English eyes with a full house of Gallic clichés (berets, matelots, pissoirs) and a garlicky playlist of Trenet, Piaf and Offenbach.

'Watch With Mother' (1991) is probably the weakest piece of the evening but the cast of overgrown children act out the sketches with galumphing glee -- nothing so creepy and revealing as grown-ups in shorts and gymslips. Bourne's go-to family of stock characters -- the frump, the wimp, the bully -- can all be glimpsed in embryo as they lumber through Joyce Grenfell's glorious Music and Movement pastiche.

Sir Matthew's fame (and fortune) was made by his full-evening dance dramas. …

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