Bourne, Again

What really bugs critics about the world’s most successful choreographer.

Matthew Bourne and Richard Winsor promote the musical version of Edward Scissorhands

Matthew Bourne, as you may have heard, is the most successful choreographer alive. His shows break box-office records and reach an audience much larger and wider than is usual for dance. Accordingly, each new endeavor—like the current North American tour of his version of Edward Scissorhands, which left Brooklyn on Sunday to head for Toronto and points west—occasions a deluge of articles and reviews. Read a few, and an uncomfortable fact becomes clear: The least interesting thing about this most successful of choreographers is his choreography.

This is sometimes expressed damningly (“He has made modern dance marketable by taking out the dance”). It is sometimes offered in admiration, as evidence of his properly populist attitudes (“He cares about story, not steps”). More often, it is admitted parenthetically, to offset praise of Bourne’s almost universally recognized gifts as a storyteller. This dichotomy between steps and story is misleading, though. For Bourne’s essential strength and weakness as both a dance-maker and a storyteller are one and the same. He’s a recycler, a master manipulator of the familiar.

The chief complaint against Bourne’s choreography is that it lacks invention. He has no signature voice, people say, no personal vocabulary of movement—what normally distinguishes a great choreographer. This much is true, but what Bourne has instead is a wide knowledge of dance, a strong memory, and an uncommon deftness in sampling eclectically in order to achieve the effects he wants.

That Bourne’s stories are also recycled is common knowledge. But it’s not just that his signature method has been to re-imagine classic ballets, operas, and films. It’s that his re-imaginings are themselves derivative: his Nutcracker set in a Dickensian orphanage, his Carmen transplanted to the noir America of The Postman Always Rings Twice. The guiding concepts are as easy to grasp as movie pitches; La Sylphide meets Trainspotting gets you Bourne’s Highland Fling.

Such mash-ups can, on occasion, produce something original, the correspondences and updatings giving old works new life. Bourne’s have—to varying degrees—been successful on this front, and in recent interviews, he has been at pains to distinguish his shows from the movie adaptations currently favored by timid theatrical producers (the adaptations, as he put it to Newsday, for which “familiarity sells tickets”). He’s right to stress that his version of Edward Scissorhands is not an exact copy of the original. Nobody talks, for one thing, and the climax-generating crisis is different (and weaker). But in terms of Bourne’s overall approach, the most telling change might be a small one, a shift from the ambiguous time period of the film to an iconic 1950s suburbia. Bourne has said that his original British audiences needed a world they could recognize more readily.

This shift toward the familiar is typical. Bourne tells stories that people already know, but even those who aren’t acquainted with the plot can follow along easily. That they can is a testament to his expert staging, but also to his canny use of stereotypes. His characters, drawn so sharply that each idiosyncrasy is legible from the back of the theater, are caricatures. (Scissorhands has a desperate housewife, a fatuous mayor, an Edward Gorey-style evangelical family.) Their pantomimed actions and attitudes are immediately comprehensible because they’re familiar. We’ve seen people behave that way before—not in life but in the movies, on TV.

Bourne sees his recycling as part of a quest for timeless narratives. He has said that Edward Scissorhands appealed to him because he saw in it a modern fable—something like Pinocchio, like Beauty and the Beast. His remakes aren’t Disneyfied, despite his work on the current Broadway production of Mary Poppins. They’re usually darker and more sexually explicit than the originals (though his Scissorhands isn’t). But he picks his stories for their themes, and his favorite word to describe them is “universal.”

These universals, as much as the gorgeous theatrical effects and stage magic he offers, are the core of his populist project, his appeal to an audience normally intimidated by dance. He makes a dance performance seem like something that the dance-phobic have seen before. An entire evening without spoken word or song can appear, in his hands, not all that different from a play or a musical—or a TV show or a movie. Unabashedly audience-conscious, Bourne is quite candid about what he’s doing: giving a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.

Critics hear this and wince. Dance for us is sweet enough on its own. Watching the medicine itself—Bourne’s derivative dances—we yawn. We too have seen it all before, and a lot more of it.

Yet Bourne’s accomplishment is real. Who else could have turned a homosexual Swan Lake into a career-making success, a mainstream commercial blockbuster? In his 1995 production, the attraction between the prince and a male swan was both a gay love story and a “universal” one about a loveless man and his fantasies. The queen’s disapproval of the prince’s blond, working-class girlfriend was both topically satirical and entirely consistent with the original story line. It was modern and classic, new and familiar. And it brought a new audience to dance.

The formula was brilliant. But Bourne may be bored with it himself. Compared to Swan Lake, Scissorhands has a perfunctory feel, more flattened than re-imagined. It lacks a generating insight (Scissorhands meets only Scissorhands). Bourne’s 2002 work Play Without Words might be a better indication of his current bearing. It, too, was based on a film—Joseph Losey’s The Servant—but the adaptation was much more experimental. The setting in mod ‘60s London was familiar, as was the tone, that of Harold Pinter, who wrote the film script. But the characters were doubled and tripled, with two or three actors playing the same part at the same time. It wasn’t always clear what was happening or why. The device pushed the piece into abstraction, opened up meanings beyond a reflex recognition, made your mind work. This was something we hadn’t seen before.

That it was a hit anyway surprised Bourne, and it may have taught him something about his audience and the power he has acquired. His next project, a gay Romeo and Juliet, could fall into his formula and be fine, but let’s hope it doesn’t. His avowed desire to take a risk, as he did with Play Without Words, is a good sign. The artist trapped by his own success is too familiar a story, even for Matthew Bourne.