Every few years a revival of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake comes around and it is compulsory under Artistic Law that you must go and see a performance because it is just the greatest thing since sliced entrechats. Mrs C and I have seen it probably ten or so times now and it never fails to amuse, beguile and horrify. But what of his other work? We’ve seen his Cinderella, Highland Fling, Car Man, Nutcracker, Dorian Gray and Play Without Words and they have all been fine entertainment in their own way – I list those productions in what I think is ascending order of excellence – but to be honest none of them come close to Swan Lake for its combination of aching emotion, inspirational choreography and downright funniness. So it’s fascinating to have the opportunity to see (for the first time, for us) three of his earliest works, to compare them with his later works, and also to compare them with contemporary pieces of today.
The set and costume design are by long-term collaborator Lez Brotherston. When you see Lez’s name in a programme, you know you have nothing to fear. Incredibly simple staging proves wonderfully versatile, as through the course of the evening a simple mini-proscenium arch and a few benches coupled with effective lighting suggest townhouses, countryside, railway stations and all things Paris.
The first piece, Spitfire (1988), is brief in more ways than one. Four poised and posy guys in a variety of vests and pants present us with a stately pas de quatre. The humour comes from the juxtaposition of their classical attitudes danced to a full orchestral Glazunov score, with the ridiculousness of their undies appearance. It was very nicely done, and I particularly liked the way some of the dancers looked snootily down their noses when their colleagues were performing their variations – very Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo; as was the suggestion that they were sexually interchangeable, sometimes doing more ballerina-type moves. I thought Christopher Marney was splendidly lugubrious in his pomposity. A very good curtain-raiser.
Next we had Town and Country (1991), with “Town” coming before the first interval and “Country” coming after. For me this was the most entertaining of the three pieces. Both parts are basically sequences of vignettes showing aspects of life in the town, and then the country, set distinctly in the early 20th century. “Town” starts with the arrival of grand people at a grand house, having the servants bathe them, while a couple of gay guys get to know each other over a genteel cup of tea – a super performance of aloofness from Tom Jackson Greaves. The scene changes to a railway station with a splendid tribute to Brief Encounter, complete with amusing waiters, which finishes with a clever bittersweet ending to the two couples involved. This is all Bourne at his story-telling best. “Country” features some typical bumpkins doing what turns out to be a lethal clog dance, some excellent recreation of horse and hound-land and some effective depiction of unsophisticated rumpy-pumpy. Whilst there are comparisons between the town and country lifestyles I don’t think the dance as a whole is meant to draw any major insights from putting the two together, which is probably a trick missed.
After the second interval it’s The Infernal Galop (1989), an homage to la vie Parisienne, with music by Charles Trenet and Edith Piaf amongst others. More apparently unconnected vignettes, featuring lovers and sailors, including some rather unsubtle stuff at the pissoir and culminating in a version of the can-can that is diametrically opposite from what you would expect, which was a nicely subversive ending. I did feel this particular piece lacked narrative though. Whilst I love Trenet’s “La Mer”, Paris is approximately 110 miles from the sea, so I couldn’t quite understand its relevance, and whereas the scenes in Town and Country followed quite a meaningful sequence, I didn’t get any sense of unity with “Galop” apart from the setting itself. A lot of the dance work also involved quite intricate mime. Sometimes the characters seemed to be communicating with each other with elaborate hand gestures reminiscent of Give Us A Clue, and if you didn’t get what they were trying to convey (as I didn’t) it was like being left out of a conversation. I would have preferred them to try to convey their message through the wider choreography rather than concentrated manual shenanigans.
What was particularly interesting in these three pieces was recognising the early use of some trademark Matthew Bourne choreography moves made famous in Swan Lake. We saw on more than one occasion dancers outstretching the left arm straight ahead whilst placing the right over their head and pointing their fingers in the same direction, in precisely the same way he choreographed the general appearance of the Swan Lake swans’ heads. In both Spitfire and Galop a dancer was on the floor, his upper body at 90 degrees to the floor with right leg stretched out and the left bent inwards, toes pointing in the same direction as the right leg, arms in fifth position, exactly as the Swan appears on the lake. On another occasion dancers depicted animals by simply touching their two hands together at the wrists and making a snappy clapping sound by bringing the tips of the fingers together, very much as a savage Swan Lake swan would. Mrs C recognised the swaying motions of dancers that reminded her of the basic dance moves of the Major Domo character. There’s probably a thesis to be done tracing the development of Bourne’s hallmark motifs.
The genius, if that is the word, of Matthew Bourne’s works is more in the wider interpretation and the mise-en-scène than in the detail of the choreography itself. He is great at taking a well known story or situation and putting it in a different place to maximum comic and/or shock effect. Throughout the whole evening you get the feeling that his primary aim as a choreographer – in these early pieces at least – is to make you laugh. Recently we have seen both the Balletboyz and Richard Alston Dance Company and in both cases, the physical demands and level of technical expertise required from the dancers far outshone what was evident in these Early Adventures. That’s not a criticism of the dancers in this production who literally did not put a foot wrong. But Bourne’s choreography did not challenge me to the same artistic degree as those other companies. I asked Mrs C if she thought the choreography was deceptively simple, or just simple. She agreed that she thought it lacked the technicality of some recent productions we have seen; and when you take all the ingredients together that make up the perfect night at the ballet, it’s an area where this production is slightly lacking.
It’s also really noticeable how Mr Bourne creates much better dance roles for men than for women; nearly all the memorable moments – the telling facial expressions, the comic nuances, the star dance turns – were performed by men. The only exception was during Brief Encounter where the two female dancers got equal stage rights.
I don’t want this to be too introspective, because it’s a fun show of dance escapism, and not a serious examination of the human condition. A highly entertaining evening of inventive comedy dance performed to perfection by a very likeable company, the audience gave it a big reception and it deserves to have a very successful tour throughout June.