If the road from what director-choreographer Matthew Bourne describes as “very ordinary, working-class, Cockney East London” to rock star is paved in Tony Awards—or their Brit equivalent, Oliviers—then Bourne is half-way there at half a dozen. Play Without Words: The Housewarming, his high-concept swirl through swinging London, won two Oliviers. Loosely based on Joseph Losey’s kinky 1963 upstairs-downstairs film The Servant, it opens a three-week run March 15 at the BAM Harvey Theater. Bourne has boldly scuttled Harold Pinter’s Servant script, replacing it with the cacaphonies of Terry Davies’s frenetic jazz score and his own inimitable movement.
“I have a warning,” Bourne says of his latest creation, in which up to three actors dance one role, creating a duplicitous spiral of class and sex. “People find the first 10 minutes rather difficult, not in terms of what they’re looking at—because it’s quite beautiful—but in terms of ‘Am I supposed to catch all this?’ I introduce the world. You don’t need to follow each individual bit. When you need to look at something, I’ll make sure you’re looking at it.”
If Bourne sounds like he’d tossed off in 10 minutes what took one Creator at least a week, it’s probably because he’s in touch with his inner child. Christmas 2004 saw not only a successful London revival of his Tony-winning boy-on-boy version of Swan Lake (before it sailed for Japan on its perennial tour, criss-crossing his “bittersweet, Dickensian” Nutcracker on its way), but also back-to-back West End openings of his Cameron Mackintosh-produced Mary Poppins musical, co-directed with Richard Eyre and co-choreographed with Stephen Mears; and Highland Fling, a piece Bourne describes as a “very famous, old romantic ballet that starts off in a toilet.”
“There was no theatrical stuff going on in my family,” Bourne recalls, “but I was a film fan before I was a dance fan. That’s where my ideas come from and where my upbringing is.” In fact, he lived on a steady diet of Hitchcock. Psycho was typical fare for the 12-year-old Bourne. “The Servant was a film my parents, particularly my mom, liked,” he says. “She thought it was too adult, but they would talk about it and that only made me more excited.”
How could Jim and June Bourne have known that after a slow start—Bourne, now 45, took his first dance class at 22—their son would wind up at the helm of what he calls “the only commercial dance company in Britain,” and that Joseph Losey’s game of master and servant would still be keeping him up nights?
Bourne’s career really got going in 1987, when as artistic director of Adventures in Moving Pictures (AMP) he loosed pieces like Does Your Crimplene Go All Crusty When You Rub on unsuspecting London. Bad-boy visual artist Damien Hirst impacted the British populace the following year; they’ve been calling Bourne “dance’s Damien Hirst” ever since.
“I was very lucky to have gotten into dance late,” says Bourne. “Everyone thinks it’s a disadvantage, but I connect with people better because of it. I’m not from that rarefied world where work tends to be about movement rather than anything else.”
His Play Without Words certainly qualifies as “anything else.” It comes out of Trevor Nunn’s “Transformation” season at London’s National Theater in 2002, and is best described as an MGM take on the classic Losey film—if MGM had peddled noir instead of musicals. He and Nunn had worked together on Nunn’s revivals of My Fair Lady and South Pacific; when Nunn needed a capper for his “experimental season about devised work and new writing” he simply tapped Bourne, who appreciated the boost. What Nunn didn’t anticipate was wordless dance theater. “It was a commission to do something non-commercial,” Bourne says, “and you don’t often get that.” Play Without Words scored Olivier Awards for Best Entertainment and Best Choreography in 2003, competing as theater rather than dance.
“I wondered about a play without words—more description than title,” Bourne remembers. “Trevor said, ‘Yeah, that’d be interesting, try it.’ I approached it as a play, not dance—a way of working I wouldn’t have done if it needed to be commercial, which all my other pieces are. It was a great experience; it proved I can still come up with something in a few weeks, and not have to concern myself with a famous title or well-known music or anything that makes it commercially viable.”
Bourne has scored for 15 years with ballet classics. “I’ve done the biggest ones, really. I haven’t done Sleeping Beauty, but mainly because I don’t have an idea. There’s no point in doing it if you haven’t got a really good idea.” He’s mined the great stories for material—Swan Lake, Cinderella, even Mary Poppins. The Servant marks his first time out of the gate with his re-formed company, New Adventures. The only thing that can bring a playground warrior low struck three years ago: the breakup of his artistic home. Bourne laughs now about his split from 15-year business partner Katharine Dore. “People did see it like a divorce.”
Bourne categorizes the height of their excess as “10 administrative assistants.” Dore got to keep the AMP banner and most of their dances. “It wasn’t as if we sat down and said, ‘ have this, have that,'” says the director. “What I found was, I didn’t really own anything. It wasn’t done in that straightforward way—splitting up the household. Over the years pieces have come back. I’ve got the rights to Swan Lake, which is more successful than ever, so things are good. For a while it was quite uncomfortable, sad, difficult, but things turned out well.”
Also part of Bourne’s reformation: a residency at London’s contemporary dance center Sadler’s Wells. “We have offices there now, a really nice relationship. We can sell out 12 weeks of dance, which is a good length. Most dance can survive for two weeks at most; even then it doesn’t sell out. The West End, for a longer run, it’s harder. We’re commercial, but only up to a point.”
So what does that mean for audiences? This year: the debut of Bourne’s Edward Scissorhands ballet. “I’ve given up trying to call it something else,” the director says, echoing a familiar theme. “People understand what a ballet is. It’s in the style of my other pieces, but I’m not a ballet choreographer. Still, it’s definitely not a musical. Actually, Tim Burton and Caroline Thompson, who wrote the screenplay, originally conceived it as a musical.”
“I put the idea to do [Scissorhands] onstage to [composer] Danny Elfman first,” Bourne continues, “and then to Tim. I was quite open-minded toward a musical, but they wanted it like the other pieces. They were excited by the prospect of non-verbal theater. It came from them, really. We’ve written the scenario for this version. It’s quite different from the 1990 film. Danny’s written some more music and it’s starting to be designed. We hope to go into rehearsal by September. We’re quite far down the road.”
Bourne takes a breath, just long enough that one can’t be sure if he’s talking about Scissorhands, Play Without Words, or his contribution to the arts in general. Then he exhales. “People aren’t quite sure what category to put it in,” he laughs. “But I’m selling it as theater.” He takes a beat and reconsiders. “Maybe theater stroke dance.”
For tickets and schedule information about Play without Words, call 718.636.4100 or visit bam.org