This title was probably mentioned at a board meeting for Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures’ re-staging of early works from his career, but summarily rejected for being too cheesy and obvious. I, however, can’t think of a better two words to summarise the triple bill programme that encompass both the sublimity and ridiculousness of the man, his art, and the interpretation of this current production by his wonderful dancers.
Matthew Bourne’s Early Adventures
Warwick Arts Centre, February 16th 2017
Although the faux thirties-style art deco-esque proscenium harks at a more lavish and antiquated setting, the audience is first met with a scene that catapults them back to their childhood. That is, if they grew up in the UK sometime between the late 1940s and 1980s when children were let loose in the gymnasium and school hall for ‘movement to music’ sessions. Children in various configurations of ill-fitting uniformed clothing would be encouraged to dance in circles and, towards the end, move interpretively to the recorded British supernanny voice of Joyce Grenfell giving instructions, followed by some piano music. There was always some kid who got far too carried away in this lesson and went on moving according to their own internal dreamscape long after the music finished. Here, contrasted against the readily un-codable pedestrian and stylised gestures of childish play from the group choreography, is a solo figure immediately recognisable as a young socially awkward and passionately energetic manifestation of Bourne himself. It was completely unsurprising to hear in the post-performance talk that this role was created on and originally danced by Bourne himself. Watching the slightly taller than average boy contorting and desperately trying to engage his peers, yet simultaneously setting himself up for torturing snapshots of isolation and misunderstanding is both compelling and endearing, and at the same time those of us with close associations to dance felt relieved to be (for once) on the outside looking in on this compulsively kinetic character. I personally see a thinly-shrouded semi-autobiographical male solo in each of his works, whether choreographed on himself or other lead dancers of his company.
Moving from “Watch with Mother” to “Town and Country” was a shift of scene, era and mood, and from the selfishness of childhood to the gregariousness of youth. Dancers Daniel Collins, Edwin Ray and Sophia Hurdley, speaking afterwards noted how exhilarating (they didn’t mention exhausting) it is to perform such contrasting works three-in-a-row, with no specific linear narratives in each piece, and certainly no common thread except Bourne’s unmistakable flourish. If nothing else, the Bourne motifs become freshly apparent as a firmly established trademark style as far back as these works from 1989 and 1991, long before his blockbuster all-male “Swan Lake” (1996) and current sell-out tour “The Red Shoes”. Bourne is unabashed in confirming that all of his now famous motifs and quirks from larger scale world famous works can all be unearthed in seed form in the earlier pieces.
Progressing from the school to the English Country home and garden. From scenes reminiscent of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie’s interpretation of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster books, to premonitions of the future popularity of 1930s nostalgia made great by Downton Abbey and The Great Gatsby we watch the privileged indoor life of the wealthy and their staff. Out in the garden, there is another world of smocks, frocks, frolics and clog dances, to an enchanted world populated with stylised, elongated farming gestures, couples leaping and bounding over imaginary haystacks, milking imaginary cows and a tickling each others’ ears with imaginary ears of corn. An idyllic and anachronistic world which may never have in fact existed outside of the collective nostalgic British psyche, but a world we can all none-the-less somehow agree upon as part of our national identity. Mesmerised by a false memory of a dancing furry hand-puppet bunny and a hedgehog and a Basil Brush fox that isn’t harmed at all when everyone gets on imaginary horses, and a funeral for the hedgehog when he accidentally gets under a dancing clog at the wrong moment, and then suddenly everyone is doing formations on scooters…and why not? This all seems perfectly normal if you grew up watching 1980s children’s television.
“The Infernal Galop”, the third and final part if the programme, brings us into a new worldview yet again. This time, we are in France (sort of, mostly) and perhaps the children and frolicking milkmaids should have gone to bed. The fun times depicted here are not innocent and naïve. The dancing is witty and enticing, but the humour not so sophisticated at times. This is the theatre of Dadaism mixed with the grace of Les Folies Bergere. The intricately nuanced muscular control of Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face with a few Chaucerian laughs thrown in for good measure. Bourne paints the stage as the kind of living canvass that the French impressionists led us through their sketches drawn up over many months, infinite cigarettes and a few bleary late-night brandies, to believe were the mainstay of the streets of Paris, twenty-four seven. Suddenly, we’re even transported in a smoky haze to Portugal for a brief trot through a six-eight beat. Then suddenly it is 1940s movie finale, all symmetry and pleasing kaleidoscope lines. The audience finds itself clapping in time to the music, the company is taking a well-deserved bow, there are fleeting waves of standing ovations, and it is has all been a magical whirlwind journey. We are not sure where we have been, but it was fun. If, in this age of austerity, we can have neither bread nor cake, please give us more circuses. Again, again please, Mr. Bourne.