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Matthew Bourne: The Entertainer

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His “Play without Words,” coming to BAM, is without compare

British director and choreographer Matthew Bourne wowed audiences on both sides of the Atlantic with his famous “Swan Lake” featuring all male swans, winning the 1999 Tony for both choreography and direction.

He is back in New York, this time for the American premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music of “Play without Words,” his sexy dance interpretation of the 1963 Joseph Losey film “The Servant.” The Losey film starred Dirk Bogarde, James Fox and Sarah Miles in a tale of a manservant (Fox) who uses his psychological wiles, against a tautly homoerotic interplay, to turn the tables on his rich young master (Bogarde).

Bourne spoke with Gay City News recently in New York, fresh from winning the Olivier Award—the West End’s Tony––for best choreography with Stephen Mear for Cameron Mackintosh’s production of “Mary Poppins,” a huge hit at the Prince Edward Theatre. Bourne also co-directed with Richard Eyre, former head of the National Theatre.

Since the critical and popular success of “Swan Lake,” Bourne has been much in demand for big West End musicals such as “My Fair Lady” and “South Pacific,” giving a fresh twist to the choreography in these theatre classics. But “Play without Words,” also an Olivier winner for “Best Entertainm­ent” and choreography at the National Theatre last year, is in its own Bourne-informed genre, unlike anything I have seen on a stage before. The U.K. Telegraph called it “a groovily shagtastic and blazingly original show” that is “funny, sexy, sinister, nostalgic and brilliantly stylish.”

ANDY HUMM: Is there anything that you would have trouble getting the green light for these days?

MATTHEW BOURNE: I don’t know. I consider myself very lucky that I can go between those two worlds very easily—the more commercial musical theater world and “Play without Words,” which started out for me as quite an experimental piece where I was trying to create something new and didn’t know how it would turn out. It didn’t have to run for long at the National Theatre. It was almost for me like a chance to fail and that was what was quite exciting for me because these days, with a commercial dance company [his Adventures in Motion Pictures], I have to keep an eye on the box office and it has to be things that I think will work. Whereas this piece came about through a different process and I was thrilled when people found it as entertaining and accessible as the other pieces.

AH: What attracted you to “The Servant” as source material?

MB: I was born in 1960, so I was around in the 1960s, but I was very young. I must have seen it when I was around 12 or 13 for the first time. It’s a very intriguing film. You’re not quite sure what is going on or what could be going on. It’s a Harold Pinter screenplay, which says it all. The relationships in the piece are left with question marks over them. I think seeing it as a teenager I enjoyed it on a different level to how I would see it now. It is sort of a haunting film––very daring for its time then. It still has the power to shock.

AH: Any effort to bring “Play without Words” to Broadway?

MB: I’ve tried to bring over several shows since I did “Swan Lake” here like “Car Man,” “Cinderella” and “Nutcracker”—things that I’ve done with big success in Britain. Los Angeles is the place that we go to more regularly. But New York has been a difficult one to crack. The commercial aspect of running a show is more scary. There aren’t many venues you could go to for a shorter run. That’s why I was thrilled when the opportunity to go to BAM came up.

AH: [After watching some clips from “Play without Words.”] You were chuckling a bit. What memories does it bring back?

MB: I hadn’t seen it for a while. There’s a lot of humor in the piece, which wasn’t the intention originally but it is always creeps into my work. I always start out with something serious and heartfelt or it doesn’t seem worth doing. But humor is what happened in this piece. It makes it more of an accessible work.

AH: You assigned three dancers to play every character. How did that come about?

MB: This is the idea that makes it work as a piece of theater. Otherwise, it uses all those inferences from films of that period, “The Servant” being the main one––but lots of other films of that time. It is the triple casting––the idea of having the same character played by one, two or three people at any given time. When I start to explain this to people it sounds confusing.

AH: It’s not confusing. It’s enlightening.

MB: It gives you many options. You can have a situation where the character is doing one thing but you’re showing behind what they’re really thinking. You can play with time, showing what happened half an hour later or a half hour before or what might have happened if they went with this person instead of that person. It gives the piece so many layers. It’s the theatrical idea that makes this piece special.

AH: You’ve been quoted as saying “I’m an entertainer,” more than a choreographer or a director. What does that mean to you? You want people to have a good time.

MB: I do. I’ve always been very audience-conscious in my work. I don’t see any point in doing it unless I’m going to entertain people or give them something to think about—entertainm­ent can be seen on many levels. I also am working in a medium––dance, or you could say storytelling without words, which is usually the way I work, narrative in which people already have concerns. They think, “I don’t really like dance” or “I don’t understand it. They don’t speak. How will I get it?”

As a director I’m very conscious of making the work clear and connecting with people. And I’ve always found humor connects very well with people. You think you’re coming to see something very serious and stuffy. Quite often that is people’s view of what dance is. The humor relaxes them, it connects them with what is going on onstage—characters that people can identify with. My work more often than not looks like a play rather than a dance piece. They wear real shoes and not those adapted dance costumes. So, I’m trying to win people for an art form that a lot of people think they don’t like.

AH: Whether your work is homoerotic or heteroerotic, it is erotic.

MB: This is the sexiest piece I’ve done, I think.

AH: Well, those swans were pretty sexy. You said you’ve had offers to do films but haven’t been interested until you had the idea of adapting “Play without Words.”

MB: The way I entered into this particular piece was that the title was a description rather than a title. When I was first asked to do the piece by Trevor Nunn at the National, I said, “Do you think I should try and do a play without words?” So the concept of doing a film without words––not necessarily this piece, not exactly a silent movie, but a story that is told without words—really intrigues me. It’s something that I have been working on in the theater for many years now. I think it would be a fascinating project to find a story that didn’t need words. There are many films that do that for great lengths of time. Hitchcock does it quite a lot in “Vertigo.” No one wants to do it because it doesn’t sound commercial.

AH: You came late to dance and never really studied ballet. You’d always been taken with show business. What got you started?

MB: My parents were big fans of theater and film and they always got me very excited about watching certain films on TV and took me to the theater.

AH: What things?

MB: I saw “The Servant.” I always loved Hitchcock films and MGM musicals. These were the things that my parents said, “You must see. We’re going to let you watch ‘Psycho’ for the first time.” I saw Angela Lansbury in “Gypsy” when I was about 12. That made me fall in love with the theater and everything it’s about. “Chorus Line” was a big influence on me when I was 15. It was sort of there in my blood. I was always putting on shows with people down the street. I’d go and see a film and reproduce it from memory and charge people to go and see it. I didn’t get into serious dance––ballet and modern dance. I only knew it from film musicals––Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire and that sort––until my late teens, early 20s. I went to a modern dance college called the Laban Center, probably because they were the only ones who would have me at the age of 22. They were quite desperate for men. They usually still are.

AH: Your partner of eight years, Arthur Pita, has a new show in Britain in April…

MB: It’s called “Camp.”

AH: Does your partnership contribute to the professional creativity that you both share or do you say, “Let’s leave that stuff outside”?

MB: Arthur did dance with me for a while in my company. He was in “Swan Lake” and other productions, so we worked at the same time together. Now he’s working as a freelance choreographer and we spend more time apart because he has to travel. He’s in Lithuania at the moment choreographing an opera. That’s something we’re getting used to now. But obviously we understand what the other does and we do talk about our work together and we’re very different in what we do. So you have to encourage each other to trust what the other believes in.

AH: Tell us about your revival of “Highland Fling” in London now.

MB: It’s my version of a famous old romantic ballet called “La Sylphide,” about a Scotsman who gets lured away from his bride-to-be on their wedding day by this sylph—the fairy, basically, with wings. In my version I’ve updated it to modern day Glasgow. The hero is now an unemployed welder living in a council flat and he hallucinates this figure in his mind. And she is sort of a wild and exciting woman who does lure him away from his bride, unfortunately, to his doom.

AH: Any hopes for bringing it here?

MB: The Joyce Theater [in Chelsea] is one I’d really like to come to.

AH: And you’re also working on “Edward Scissorhan­ds.” A lot of people look at your work, loving it and also with a great deal of envy: “This guy got to do what he wanted to do. He broke through. He created new forms.” What do you say to people about how they could break out.

MB: Well, I consider myself very lucky and I’ve always done things that feel right for me and follow my instincts and my heart––often unfashionably. And I think it’s a good lesson. I started very late. And it means you can achieve your dreams if you fight for them.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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