For Matthew Bourne, dance is an adventure. So far, the two iterations of his companies Adventures in Motion Pictures and New Adventures remain linked by his willingness to go out on a limb with his narrative dance works that survey the big stories of film, traditional classical ballets, and operas with a unique and theatrical brand. His latest show, Early Adventures takes us back three decades to where it all started with three original, small scale works. Two of them survey stories from a decidedly English perspective. Watch with Mother is a schoolboy idyll with a personal touch. The two act Town and Country looks at the lives of the urban and rural English between the wars. He directs his cast of nine unnamed characters with the practiced eye of an Englishman who knows his people and treats them with both sympathy and occasional mockery. The Infernal Galop (Offenbach’s original title for his forever French Can-Can) looks across the Channel at the French in a suite of music by Django Reinhardt, Edith Piaf, and Charles Trenet that, like the two English works, is a moving and witty arrangement of familiar national pastiche.
... an Englishman who knows his people and treats them with both sympathy and occasional mockery.
Two things make these works memorable. Bourne lets his dance invention pour out naturally. The movement is quirky and full of nervous spontaneity. You might not always know what he’s getting at with some of those peculiar gestures but the combination of acting, expressive faces, and dancing has deep appeal. The second is the music. All three pieces grow out of deeply felt musical collages. Using a mix of popular, national, and remade classical arrangements, the works (Bach, a sea shanty, Noel Coward, and Rachmaninoff for example) often seem unlikely choices but always point you in the direction of an overriding nostalgia for time, people, and place. Anchoring the first two works is an assortment of music by Percy Grainger, England’s Australian-born eccentric folk song collector. His career as a musical celebrity bridged novelty and popular entertainment, as well as more respected music. Here, his genre-bridging music is a fitting metaphor for the artful patchwork of music Bourne has chosen, music that ambles unpredictably, though satisfyingly, through all three suites.
Early Adventures brims with theatrical detail, atmospheric lighting, and set and costume design. Scene setups magically materialize and disappear. Much of Town feels like cinema. A brief scene for two couples cribs scenes the classic British film Brief Encounter. The rail stations, town homes, and streets of Town are exchanged for the bucolic Cotswold Hills in Country. Rustics, morris dance tunes, the hunting crowd, a love story, a clog dance, and a menagerie of small animal puppets culminate in a funeral for a deceased hedgehog. The context may be a bit ludicrous but the solemnity and depth of feeling with which it concludes is real.
... the unlikely musical choices always point you in the direction of an overriding nostalgia for time, people, and place.
The Early Adventures cast are wonderfully committed to Bourne’s style. Seeing them up close in a small venue personalized all the action. There were exceptional performances from Mari Kamata in the bathing scene in Town, Tom Clark as the bathrobed merman and the three matelots in La Mer from Galop, and the endearing male duo in Coward’s Dearest Love. All of them were standouts.
Bourne has been wildly successful with his vision for dance. Shows like Edward Scissorhands and his Tchaikovsky classics have reached out and entertained audiences worldwide. That these pieces still seem fresh and new is a testimony to his original intentions, “to make people laugh and cry, and give audiences a great night out at the theater”. These early adventures remain true to those aspirations.
(The reviewed performance took place at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, California on May 17, 2017.)
Top photo: Matthew Bourne's Early Adventures 'Town' / All photos © Johan Persson