Swan Lake - The Car Man - choreography by Matthew Bourne
Adventures in Motion Pictures

The discovery of the ‘Adventures in Motion Pictures’ really overwhelmed me. It’s a glamorous piece of dance and an incredibly exciting new way of seeing classical dance. The ‘Swan Lake’ at London's Dominion Theatre was amazing and gave me great happiness and delight. This dance company is hugely successful. The real star of the company is the director and choreographer Matthew Bourne (, a genuine prodigy of classical dance production. He comes from Walthamstow in East London and at the age of 14 started to dedicate his time after school to autograph hunting. He recalled that, "We went to first nights and we waited outside hotels and at stage-doors, in the wind and rain. We ended up with thousands of autographs and corresponded with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. We met Chaplin and Astaire." He calls this experience "my education". Today he keeps a visitor's book in his dressing-room and in Hollywood the stars call back-stage to congratulate him and are very pleased to sigh their names and be part of this autograph collection.

He signed for a three-year course at the famous Laban Centre in London's Lewisham when he was 22 (in 2002 the Laban Centre is going to have new state-of-the-art premises, designed by the Tate Modern architects, Herzog & de Meuron.) In 1986, his final year as a student, he formed a choreographic group which toured dance academies. Their final date was in Hong Kong and they decided to form a permanent company. On the flight back home they noticed the words, printed on the bag of the headsets, "Adventures in Motion Pictures" and this is how they chose the company name. They were described as "the rugby team from Lesbos" until they got their individual style.

The early pieces were collectively named ‘Spitfire’, and were based on poses used in men's underwear advertisements. "His work has always been informed by a gay sensibility and in ‘Spitfire’ his Y-fronted men replaced the traditional grouping of four ballerinas again and again in classical ballet." Modern dances deal with 'issues' and to be 'contemporary' in Europe was de riguer. His version of the film ‘Brief Encounter’ was ‘Town and Country’ (1990), set in a forties hotel foyer, with a maid and a valet entertaining a male guest. The piece ends with a funeral, which reduced some audience-members to tears. Then in 1992, the company mounted ‘Deadly Serious’, based on the films of Alfred Hitchcock. The first half of this piece is in black and white and features the figure of the tennis-player, derived from ‘Strangers on a Train’, while the second half, in colour features characters from ‘Vertigo’, ‘Rope’ and ‘North by Northwest’. Bourne says, "It's strange, because as a choreographer film influences me more than dance does: I always have film images in my head when I'm planning a show." Then came Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Nutcracker’ 1993, premiered at the Edinburgh Festival the following year, with a startling change to the existing version of the ballet. This new interpretation, set in a Victorian orphanage, has adults playing the children’s part in a story of a young girl's fantasies and sexual-awakening.

Next came ‘Highland Fling’ in 1994 (based on ‘La Sylphide’). The opening scene takes place in a urinal set in the alcoholic fog of a Glasgow high-rise, showing a junkie's hallucinations of a zombie-fairy; a funny and violent piece. ‘Swan Lake’, performed in 1995 was followed by ‘Cinderella’ in 1997. The latter won the 1998 Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance for Lez Brotherston's set and costume designs and toured in Los Angeles in 1999. Less well known is the adaptation of Du Maurier’s classic Rebecca, conceived as a danced silent movie! The patrons of the AMP company are Sir Nigel Hawthorne, Sir Howard Hodgkin, Gillian Lynne, and Sir Ian McKellen.

The Company is moving to a new residence at the Old Vic Theatre in 2002. I am very excited because I am hoping to see the old productions that I missed. They may do ‘Cinderella’ and ‘The Nutcracker’ but I read that Bourne is working on six new productions. This is going to be the first contemporary dance company to have its own base facilities. The Royal Ballet is the only London company with its own home at the Royal Opera House. They say that people's taste at the moment is for dance; these things are cyclical. Bourne is also working on the choreography for the National Theatre production ‘My Fair Lady’. He is also very excited about the move to the Old Vic, a place of great traditions where British music and dance was born. it was the birthday of British Ballet in 1931, with the collaboration between Lilian Baylis (Manager of the Old Vic) and Ninette de Valois, founder of the Royal Ballet. Lilian Baylis was the first to bring ballet to the stage of the Old Vic.

The AMP ‘Swan Lake’ features an all-male corps de ballet that turn into birds. It took the dance world by storm at its Sadlers Wells ( premiere in 1995. It then moved to London's Piccadilly Theatre and on to Los Angeles, and finally on to Broadway where it won three awards. On both sides of the Atlantic, the awards poured in, 28 in all, including three Tonys. Eventually it was back in the West End, my good luck, so I was able to see this most original production of Tchaikovsky's classic. The young Prince is suffocated by duty; his imperious middle-class spurned mother, the Queen, (played by Isabel Mortimer), and his wildly unsuitable girlfriend (Vicky Evans in yellow-hair). Someone said that the ballet had echoes of Charles and Diana and their marital problems. They were approaching the end of their marriage at the time of the production. As Matthew Bourne said in an interview on the programme-brochure, "We found remarkable similarities between the troubled princes and kings researched (Ludwig of Bavaria, Edward VII, Duke of Windsor etc.) (In fact Ivor Novello was inspired to write his musical play ‘King's Rhapsody’ by the ill-fated romance of King Carol of Romania in which Novello played the lead and was appearing in it on the night he died, 6 March 1951). The Prince craves affection but his relationships go wrong. He has not one person to turn to so just when he is in complete despair he meets the Swan - the living embodiment of the Prince's childhood dreams. With this powerful vision of dancing male swans wearing only feathers you can see how this charismatic ballet won an Evening Standard Ballet Award in 1997 for the set and costumes.

Adam Cooper, who plays the Chief Swan, shares the part with his brother Simon Cooper. He is actually heterosexual, a dancer from the Royal Ballet, as well as being one of the superstars of the AMP. He is transmuted to a cruel carnal stranger in black leather trousers with a riding-whip, very sensual. He charms both women and men. (In fact, when the Prince chose the male swan, the audience verbally identified with his choice. Some of the audience was homosexual. Next to me were two gay men and in front some female couples and a lot of very young people. It was an unclassifiable crowd, a cross-section of people rather than the tradition Covent Garden audience there to see purist ballet, and there were certainly no little girls dreaming of being ballerinas. It was more than a dance about a dying swan - it was extraordinarily touching, with amazing choreography demanding movement of arms and such powerful bodies covered by feathers. Conducted by Brett Morris, it was a pepped-up version of Tchaikovsky, a Freudian-dream reinterpretation of Tchaikovsky - drama, satire, a horror story, a thriller and life-enhancing theatre, an incredibly sad and touching interpretation.

This mesmerising revolutionary production of ‘Swan Lake’ won a standing ovation and as I said many awards around the world. More than 75,000 people saw ‘Swan Lake’ at the Dominion Theatre. The programme-brochure dedicated the first two pages to Simon Murphy 1971-1995 and to the music director David Frame 1946-1999 and as Katharine Dore - producer and co-director (she is a descendant of Gustave Dore, the 19th Century French artist and illustrator) says "this production is dedicated to them".

One can find out more in the book Matthew Bourne and his Adventures in Motion Pictures edited by Alaistair Macaulay, a Financial Times critic (published by Faber & Faber, price Ł14.99). Alastair Macauley shares some history with Bourne from the the Laban Centre days ( Macaulay, who was a history lecturer, hosted a programme on Radio 4 with Bourne and guests including Julie Walters, Twiggy, Auberon Waugh and Sam Mendes (he also chatted with Sam Mendes about East Enders, and they all loved it.).

I planned to see yet another AMP production, ‘The Car Man’, at the Old Vic - I arrived very early to try to get a cheap ticket. Being unemployed, I was entitled to buy a discounted ticket for a seat in the expensive stalls, which were full of old rich American couples from provincial America, but then there are some Americans who are very out-of-town in their attitude. My seat had a "RESERVED" notice on it, so I felt important. I could see my neighbours trying to identify which famous film star or other important personage I was. During the interval, I walked around looking for ghosts of the theatre; Gielgud played his first Hamlet in 1930; Olivier played Richard III in 1944. But I was most attracted by the beautiful atmosphere and some theatrical pictures hanging on the walls, very emotional for me, but I hope the place will still be the same after restoration.

This magnificent, historical theatre opened in 1818 as the Royal Coburg Theatre. In 1833 it was re-named (in honour of the then Princess Victoria) the Royal Victoria Hall, but it has since become know in affectionate local slang as the Old Vic. It is also popularly know as "The Home of Shakespeare" (it was where Richard Burton began his Shakespearean career). In 1950, the Old Vic Company with Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson led to the foundation of the National Theatre (now the Royal National Theatre) in 1963, with Olivier as its Artistic Director. It is also know as "The Actors' Theatre", having had the likes of Alec Guinness, Vivien Leigh, and Michael Redgrave tread its boards. More recently, Peter O'Toole was seen in ‘Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell’ and Kevin Spacey appeared in ‘The Iceman Cometh’. In 1997 the theatre was put up for sale but it was saved by a charitable trust. Alex Bernstein, the chairman, director Stephen Daldry, actor Kevin Spacey, and impresario Sally Green, with the help of many sponsors from the UK and USA, managed to save the Theatre, which is known as the "greatest actors' stage in the world".

‘The Car Man’ anticipates a new era at the Old Vic and will be the new home of the 13-years old company Adventures in Motion Pictures ( ‘The Car Man’ is its curtain-raiser, to be followed by six new works; an exciting collaboration because, as I said, AMP is famous for taking classical ballet into a new dimension of fables with a modern resonance and universal appeal, notorious in its sexually-threatening approach, as evidenced by the 'gay' Swan Lake. But, because the productions generally have great humour and are erotic, they may become very popular.

In the Radio 4 programme, Matthew Bourne explained why Carmen became ‘The Car Man’, sub-titled ‘An Auto-Erotic Thriller’, set in a mid-western American community in the early sixties, ironically named Harmony. The character of Luca, played by actor and dancer Will Kemp, a mechanic, newly-arrived in the town, is really The Car Man, based on Bizet's ‘Carmen’. It was re-conceived by Rodion Schedrin as a suite for strings and percussion, with music by Terry Davies (, and ingenious sound-effects conducted by Brett Morris. The original has been re-orchestrated.

It was inspired not only by Bizet's opera, but also by Tay Garnett’s classic 1946 film noir ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’, based on the James M. Cain novel of the same name, starring Lana Turner and John Garfield (remade in 1981 with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange). It is a dance version of the film set in a car repair garage. You can smell the grime as sweaty, tough-guy mechanics hammer away at greasy engines, distracted only by languorous girls trying to cool-off. The lusty young men and women work by day and love by night, slithering around each other's bodies in exotic contortions, sweltering and noisy. The new mechanic has a great impact, with his popping muscles and sinewy shamelessness. The drama unfolds as the infatuated couple conspire to murder her husband, the owner of the garage. It is a powerful work with its cinematic references including Hitchcockian suspense, flashbacks, hallucinations, film noir claustrophobia and a daredevil James Dean-style car chase. The drama intensifies as the lover escapes from jail and returns to the town to find that the stranger, who had a homosexual affair with him (the audience gasped at learning this), now had affairs in his absence with both men and women. He goes demented in a stupor brought on by booze and guilt - a potent mix of remorse, anger and jealousy! The brilliant set by Lez Brotherston reveals some of his most versatile work, with two tiered sets built for instant scene changes, transforming a city dive into a prison and back again into a garage. It all the production is a vital drama, exuding both tensions and humour all the way. Really great.

Verinha Ottoni


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