British choreographer Sir Matthew Bourne is the recipient of Laurence Olivier Awards, a Tony Award, a Drama Desk Award and an award for Best Direction of a Musical. He was knighted at the Queen’s 2016 New Year Honours for his services to dance. In the United States, Bourne is best known for his innovative remakes of the classic ballets Swan Lake, Carmen (The Car Man) and Cinderella choreographed for his first company, Adventures in Motion Pictures (1987-2002). His recent company New Adventures was launched in 2002.
Bourne’s three ballets WATCH WITH MOTHER, TOWN AND COUNTRY, and THE INFERNAL GALOP presented in the Bram Goldsmith Theater at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts were choreographed between 1989 and 1992, and appeared heavily influenced by his knowledge of musical theater, film and vaudeville revues. I recall reading that Matthew Bourne was considered a very “audience conscience” choreographer, and for these three ballets, that was very true. There were many times when the action was played directly to the audience similar to multi-act revues.
All the elements were there: beautiful dancers, gorgeous costumes, sets and props; and, of course, there was the Matthew Bourne name. A decorative metal arch remained throughout the evening as the furniture, back drops, props and costumes changed. There were hand puppets, scooters, same sex pairings, chance meetings, a railroad station, sounds of farm animals, country folk, gentry and almost every other cliché one might imagine. I am a big fan of Matthew Bourne’s work, but on this program the humor was so in-your-face, as not to be funny. That is unless one disregarded any knowledge of musical theater, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly films or vaudeville. Bourne threw in a twist or surprise on a few of these well-known antics and plots but, for this reviewer, the evening felt extremely long.
WATCH WITH MOTHER Seen but Not Heard? was based on Joyce Grenfell’s Nursery School sketches (“George…Don’t Do That“). The music was by Percy Grainger along with his arrangements of Bach and Fauré. There were the class introverts who longed to be accepted. There was the competition between school children, as well as their innocent sexual explorations. The dancing was excellent, but the story line did not hold my interest.
Things livened up in TOWN AND COUNTRY, set to the music of Edward Elgar, Noel Coward, Eric Coates, Percy Grainger and others. The action increased and the sets shifted several times. In a hotel lobby, several wealthy men and women arrived to vacation and to be pampered. There’s a humorous scene with a rich couple getting bathed and dressed by servants that incorporated two bath tubs, semi-nude dancers and large towels. The nursery school loner has grown up into a very handsome gay man and while sitting alone in the lobby working on his needlepoint, he met another gentleman with whom he danced and fell in love.
The scenery shifted and there was a well-executed section performed on red scooters, with dancers posed in arabesque while gliding in and out of the stage wings and set. The amused gay couple sat enjoying a picnic lunch before joining in the fun. The Bram Goldsmith Theater stage is not the largest, so kudos to the dancers for managing not to crash.
With the appearance of a large clock, smoke and sound effects, the arch became an entryway to a train platform. Tables and chairs were brought in to represent a sidewalk café employed with very stereotypical gay servers. In a scene that was inspired by the 1945 film Brief Encounter directed by David Lean, strangers met, fall in love (or lust) and a romantic pas de quatre ensued.
The scene moved from city to country, and the comedy became painfully obvious. Hands with splayed fingers became cow udders, legs turned into water pumps and a vaudevillian style act with bad clogging ended in tragedy for an adorable warthog. This scene reminded me of Saturday Night Live skits that don’t work because they go on too long. TOWN AND COUNTRY ended with a funeral procession for the poor little demised creature, followed by a dark and somber wake.
THE INFERNAL GALOP A French dance with English subtitles was a look at French culture through somewhat partial British eyes. The painted backdrop included famous Paris landmarks and there was a public pissoir (urinal) on stage right that became the setting for the longest urination on record. Straight couples danced, men went off to war and sex took place with abandon while Edith Piaf’s powerful Hymn a l’Amour played over the speakers. Set to the post-war hit La Mer by Charles Trenet, a merman dressed in sea green seductively lured three French sailors to their death. In the most interesting pas de deux of the evening, a gay couple made several attempts at having public sex only to be repeatedly interrupted by a group of street performers. The ballet concluded with the beautiful cast performing a deadpan version of a Can-can to the extremely well-known music by French composer Jacques Offenbach that you are most likely singing to yourself right now.
The very talented company members included Joao Carolino, Reece Causton, Tom Clark, Daniel Collins, Paris Fitzpatrick, Sophia Hurdley, Mari Kamata, Jamie Emma Mcdonald and Edwin Ray. The stunning sets and costumes were designed by Lez Brotherston and the Lighting Designer was Andrew Murrell.