Dorian Gray, King's Theatre, Edinburgh<br/>Mortal Engine, Playhouse, Edinburgh<br/>Steve Reich Evening, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Matthew Bourne's ballet of Oscar Wilde's novella falls down on too many levels

Clifford Bishop
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:42

Beauty, said Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray, ends where intellectual expression begins. In which case Matthew Bourne's version of the story can be relished to the end. Certainly there can hardly be a better potential Dorian than Richard Winsor, with his easy feline grace and poutingly cruel, pugilistic-angel features. Watching him, it is easy to understand what Wilde meant when he described his own double life as "feasting with panthers". Unfortunately, apart from a feted pretty face, swiftly corrupted by fame, Bourne seems to have no compelling idea of who or what a modern Dorian Gray might be.

He claims to have updated the plot to the 21st-century world of fashion and photography, but much of the production – including Terry Davies's largely forgettable score of electronically neutered funk and power chords – reeks of nostalgia for the 1980s and earlier. Perhaps fashionistas and the self-consciously über-cool are already impossible to satirise without also falling into self-parody. However, having media party animals do an Austin Powers bunny hop suggests a shaky authorial grip on the tone of what passes as a dark moral fable – especially when the first few minutes have already seen would-be models pulling Zoolander moves.

Some characters are entirely risible. Christopher Marney's ballet dancer, who attracts Dorian for a while until he recognises a narcissism even more complete than his own, is that extinct brand of dancing queen who only stops flouncing long enough to point his chin and stare into the middle distance. When Dorian watches him die of an overdose instead of phoning for help, it is no more than an act of mercy. For all of us.

It is also the catalyst for Dorian's dual nature to begin manifesting itself, and what a disappointment that is. Bourne replaces the brilliant conceit of a portrait standing proxy for its owner's moral and physical corruption with the half-baked device of a stalking doppelgänger – someone who doesn't look much like Richard Winsor to begin with, and doesn't look any less like him as the sins mount up. Jared Hageman, as the doppelgänger, conveys a growing moral turpitude and a hollowing out of the human soul by dancing a bit like Bez from the Happy Mondays. Which is fair enough, but you can't help wishing for something more portentous.

The most effective symbol of duality on the stage is Lez Brotherston's set, with its central revolve that, on one side, suggests white spaces such as art galleries and minimalist media offices, and on the other presents a rusted hull that serves as back-alley entrances and crumbling lofts.

Despite the empty core to Dorian Gray there are strong individual passages of choreography. A matched pair of duets between Winsor and Aaron Sillis, as the photographer who snaps Dorian, beds him, and immortalises him, are the best things in the show. Although the simulated sex between them is pretty basic, the seductions – with their give and take of power between one who possesses beauty and one who can market it – are passionate, nuanced and at least suggest that there is something going on in Bourne's characters behind the façade.

A more spectacular, but ultimately just as disappointing, treatment of the self as movable feast came to Edinburgh in Mortal Engine, an interactive video-and-laser show from Gideon Obarzanek's Australian company Chunky Move. Generating their own lighting effects, the dancers' bodies dissolve into fluorescent embryos or exude sinister, twitching pools of darkness that scuttle around them. Shadows have their own personalities: one woman's tries to escape as she reaches to embrace it, like an Edvard Munch illustration to Peter Pan; another glues a couple together.

Nothing and nobody has a clear boundary, and despite inevitable flashbacks to sci-fi films and new wave Japanese horror, the visual overload allows you to ignore the relative poverty of the movement that creates it. But then, with what is in retrospect a nerdy inevitability, the auditorium fills with dry ice and the whole thing devolves into a prog-rock laser show, until eventually the dancers march slowly through a fan of emerald rays to the front of the stage, like something out of Close Encounters. Even the amazing technology on display here – movement-sensing infra-red cameras and responsive computer algorithms designed by the German Frieder Weiss – is no substitute for imagination, discipline and a post-adolescent sensibility.

There's an element of the penitential in even – especially – the best work by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. Her uncompromising rigour means that audience comfort, let alone pleasure, is often something of an optional extra. And two hours of Steve Reich music without a toilet break smacks of someone determined to make us suffer for her art. The organising principle of her Steve Reich Evening is unveiled in the opening Pendulum Music – two microphones swinging with slightly different periods over a couple of loudspeakers. The resulting whoops of feedback change pitch and duration as they separate, overlap or seemingly call and respond in an unpredictable but never random duet.

Most of the music, performed by the Belgian contemporary ensemble Ictus, is about how patterns with slightly different parameters interfere or build upon each other to produce effects that veer back and forth from the mundane to the bafflingly complex. De Keersmaeker responds to this programme in a variety of more-or-less playful ways. In Piano Phase, for example, the basic swinging arms and circling steps of the dancers move in and out of synchronisation along with the musical lines played on two pianos, whereas in Four Organs everybody speeds up in wilful contrast to the gluttonously lengthening, repeated central chord.

The cumulative effect of so many simple operations is seductively elusive, like trying to listen to people whispering in another room. And the dancers are so ferociously committed to enacting these anonymous manoeuvres that they reclaim for themselves a stripped down, next-stage-of-evolution kind of humanity, totally lacking from Bourne's mannequins and caricatures, or Obarzanek's seed-beds for a light show.

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