‘Matthew Bourne’s Early Adventures’ at Sadlers Wells

I don’t often buy a programme at the theatre, for both high minded and cheapskate reasons .  I want to form my own views about the what I’m watching, and usually, I baulk at the price.  But this was one occasion when I was very glad to be able to read one; I just wish I’d started reading it before the show started.  If I had read it, I wouldn’t have spent the first 15 minutes, while the dancers performed ‘Spitfire‘, wondering why they were in their underwear, and what any of it had to do with aeroplanes and the Second World War.

It transpires that the piece is a parody of a showcase for the skills of classical ballerinas using the styling of a men’s underwear advertisement.  It made much more sense after I’d read that.  It was amusing and tongue in cheek, combining the ridiculousness of the costume with the preening and silly pomposity of the model.

So you see, I’m basically ignorant about dance, although I have been to a number of Matthew Bourne productions; his reinterpretation of the movie The Servant as Play Without Words is one of the most memorable things I’ve seen – it stays in my mind for its style and sharpness as well as its pure originality and cleverness.

Early Adventures is a collection of three of Matthew Bourne’s work which predate his success with Swan Lake.  I can’t really comment on whether they show him as a fully formed choreographer then, or whether they show how much he has changed, but all three pieces contained sly humour, an obvious affection for a concept of ‘Britishness’, and some of the doubling or mirroring which he used to such strong effect in Play Without Words, in which three dancers played each part simultaneously.

In my ignorance the show has to engage me, I can’t see the in jokes or the parodying of dance history.  I do however see references to other aspects of our shared cultural history.  So I spot the filmic references, as in the retelling, in double, of Brief Encounter, very briefly, in the first half of Town and Country, and the stiff upper lips required of young men of a certain age and class, eyeing each other up in a hotel lobby, but I fear the subtleties of some of the other sections passed me by.

The third piece was The Infernal Gallop  named after the original title of Offenbach’s music for the cancan.  A mickey take of English attitudes towards the French of the 1930s it was a melange of pissoirs, matelots in striped jerseys and girls dowdy dresses.  Unfortunately for me, I could see the period references in the styling of the costumes and set, as well as through the period music, but recognised nothing in the dance itself.  Instead I started wondering about Apache Dancers……. and had to have a little internet trawl when I get home.  I couldn’t find much other than a parody involving Shirley MacLaine from a 1960 film.

While I enjoyed the evening, and the highlight moments were tremendous, the show was a little patchy and they were guilty of one of my pet hates – the unnecessary interval.  In a show that ran from 7:30 to 9:40 there were two 20 minute intervals, which is at least one, possibly two, too many.

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3 Comments

  1. I don’t know whether we can call a choreographer (or other creator, for that matter) a great practitioner of his/her artform if we can’t understand what it is the piece is about! Then again, if it pleases you, visually, or emotionally, perhaps that’s enough. But really, I’m with you: if you have to read the liner notes to get the piece, then the creator isn’t doing the job right!

    Reply
    • It’s a fine line, I think – I know I’m fairly ignorant about dance, so I think I have to take responsibility for missing quite a lot – as indeed a dance officianado who knows nothing about cinema might not have appreciated the humour of the ‘Brief Encounter’ parody.

      Reply

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