Bizet's Carmen goes west

Matthew Bourne has invented an entirely new theatrical genre, with the production values of musicals, but with dance instead of songs. His latest, The Car Man, is his most ambitious yet
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The Independent Culture

Matthew Bourne has scaled dizzy heights since he founded Adventures In Motion Pictures in 1987. Although his gift for plain old entertainment always sets him apart, he could have stayed put on the lower slopes, following the same specialist touring circuit of his peers. Instead, he saw bigger, taking contemporary dance to people that other contemporary dance forms don't reach. And now he is going one further. He is bringing his new production The Car Man, on tour in the regions since May, to London's Old Vic Theatre, which is to become AMP's home. This is some coup. Where before, like other West End shows, they had to duck and dive to find a suitable theatre, and then get in the queue, now they will be where audiences can locate them easily and they can plan ahead. In dance it is a privilege enjoyed only by the Royal and Birmingham Royal Ballets at present.

Matthew Bourne has scaled dizzy heights since he founded Adventures In Motion Pictures in 1987. Although his gift for plain old entertainment always sets him apart, he could have stayed put on the lower slopes, following the same specialist touring circuit of his peers. Instead, he saw bigger, taking contemporary dance to people that other contemporary dance forms don't reach. And now he is going one further. He is bringing his new production The Car Man, on tour in the regions since May, to London's Old Vic Theatre, which is to become AMP's home. This is some coup. Where before, like other West End shows, they had to duck and dive to find a suitable theatre, and then get in the queue, now they will be where audiences can locate them easily and they can plan ahead. In dance it is a privilege enjoyed only by the Royal and Birmingham Royal Ballets at present.

Bourne has achieved all this by inventing a new genre, with the production value of musicals, but with dance in the place of songs. His pieces are more like shows, bewitching audiences through lavish design, visual gags, tongue-in-cheek references and a narrative blending familiar resonances with surprising new twists. Deadly Serious (1992) was a Hitchcock spoof; Highland Fling (1994) brought a fresh slant to the ballet, La Sylphide, setting it in a Glasgow council estate; The Nutcracker (1992), shifted the cosy Christmas story to a grim Victorian orphanage.

Bourne builds his pieces on principles that are canny and pragmatic. He makes sure that he offers the audience something they can recognise to give them a way in. So The Car Man features music for Carmen - albeit reworked by Terry Davies and incorporating Rodion Shchedrin's existing Bolshoi Ballet adaptation. It also has a title clearly playing on Bizet's original and a narrative promising steamy passion and revenge. "It's to do with making it work for people who are not necessarily dance followers," says Bourne. "Titles are what sell a piece, while the familiar music can often hold the experience together for people. And within that you can really be quite subversive, take them on journeys that they wouldn't have accepted if things had been less familiar." In the same way, mixing comic moments into the drama not only creates interesting mood changes, but sweetens the audience, so that they are less likely to take offence at the racier ingredients.

He's absolutely right. Why, even my octogenarian uncle, not given to attending dance performances, even less, "gay" ones, decided to buy tickets for AMP's male-oriented Swan Lake and enjoyed it. This celebrated version spotlights male swans and a prince who is attracted to their macho leather-clad leader, but it had been a massive hit all the same. After a premiere at Sadler's Wells Theatre in 1995, it transferred to the West End, took the USA by storm, toured the UK last year and returned to London this year with a season at the Dominion Theatre. It even resulted in the formation of a second AMP to take the production round Europe for three months, while The Car Man was also on the road, making Bourne responsible for a total of 65 dancers.

Swan Lake was the turning point for AMP, when they lost their Arts Council grant because it would have required them to return to being an eight-dancer outfit. "Either we went backwards or carried on," says AMP's producer Katharine Doré. "But we were planning Cinderella [a version set during the London Blitz] and that needed far more money. Our Arts Council subsidy was £100,000 and we were asking £2m, which wasn't going to happen."

Ultimately it meant AMP lost all Arts Council help, and so Doré had to find investors or "angels" like any other commercial show. "We raised our first £1m through our shareholder scheme where each share costs £500. It enabled us to make the transition to being a commercial company and to start preparing Cinderella."

Being so reliant on selling concentrates the creative mind in a certain way, but Bourne has always had a strong populist streak. "I never felt restricted by it, I like creating popular pieces." Consequently he actually feels ambivalent about the label "gay" being attached to Swan Lake even if it is justified. "I think there is something in Swan Lake that is very moving and powerful for everyone. But as soon as something gets labelled then it sounds as though it's only for that group of people. And we're always having to fight that - even when it's just dance, people think, well, that's not for me."

The Car Man has a gay strand, given that Luca, a drifter who arrives in the hick American Midwest town of Harmony, seduces uptight Angelo, as well as Lana. She is the wife of slobbish Dino who owns the local garage where a sign advertises "Man Wanted" (in a perfect double entendre). And so Luca joins Dino's gang of car mechanics, a clear transposition of Bizet's cigarette-factory girls.

But The Car Man is more complex than a straight gender reversal of Carmen. As always, Bourne has used the original as a launch pad for his free-wheeling imagination. "I didn't want a story where people already knew what was going to happen. I wanted something that had suspense in it and twists." For once he wrote the story first, then fitted the music to it, as for a film. "But with an existing score like Swan Lake I feel I need to keep the correct musical order, so I write the story to it. That can be problematic sometimes. The music doesn't always do what you want it to do, it can make your story go off in slightly different directions." But because the score for The Car Man was already a commissioned adaptation he didn't feel the same constraints.

He used The Postman Always Rings Twice as another starting point. Luca is a Brando figure and the town - "one of those places with a roadside diner where people meet at night" - is too small not to feel excited when someone new arrives. "Luca's symbolic and we tend to use the fate theme from Carmen when he's around. He's the stranger who changes things, for the worse." Bourne wants the piece to look like Hollywood film noir, and even more like European New Wave Cinema, which is why he places the drama within an Italian American community. "The instant images you get are the more obvious ones of a lot of American movies. But if you look deeper, it's much more European, it's more earthy and the women's hair is messier and you should be able to feel the heat."

There are four meaty star roles, but not for the glossy ballet stars - Lynn Seymour, Adam Cooper and Sarah Wildor - prominent in Swan Lake and Cinderella. It's his own dancers' turn, which is only fair for members such as Will Kemp and Saranne Curtin who have performed leading parts with AMP since The Nutcracker. And so here they are in the Old Vic, a theatre in danger not long ago. When a trust was being formed to save it, Doré asked: "Can AMP be involved? Please bear us in mind." And the trust did.

AMP takes up residency in 2001, to allow Bourne time to build up an active repertory. He plans to revive The Nutcracker, Cinderella and Highland Fling as well as create new pieces. The company of 25 will have the luxury of full-time employment and use of the office and rehearsal space. Theatre companies will appear there while they are on tour and Bourne expects to have some say in who gets invited.

Meanwhile, he is choreographing My Fair Lady at the Royal National Theatre, working on a musical version of Edward Scissorhands (a venture separate from AMP) and presenting a Channel 4 dance series. He's come a long way from the dance student who spent night after night watching the Royal Ballet. He must be particularly chuffed that when the Royal Ballet started performing in 1931 it was at the Old Vic, in a deal not so different from AMP's.

The Car Man', Old Vic, London SE1 (020-7369 1762), 13 Sept to 9 Dec

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