Photography: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian
Matthew Bourne and Christopher Wheeldon are choreographers whose work owes as much to a passion for film and Broadway musicals as it does to ballet traditions. In fact, just last week, Wheeldon won the Tony for Best Choreography for the second time, for his work on MJ: The Musical (who also directed). Bourne also won two Tony Awards (for choreography and direction of his version of swan lake).
That doesn’t make them unique. George Balanchine worked on Broadway and Jerome Robbins won it; Kenneth MacMillan was heavily influenced by film and his final work before his death was the choreography for the 1994 revival of Carousel, who also won a Tony. But it does provide a key to understanding how they will tell the stories they want to tell.
Bourne’s dancers stretch their bodies to the extreme, every gesture alert as if they were performing on their nerves.
Bourne is a phenomenon. It seemed reckless when he announced he planned to rework his 2000 work the car man to stage at the Royal Albert Hall. It was always a vivid, sexy ballet, but it felt too much like a chamber piece to extend its punch in that vast space. However, the result is a triumph, which fills the air with hot passion and terrible feeling.
Lez Brotherston has provided a characteristically brilliant backdrop that combines the Italian-American mechanic shop and restaurant where the action takes place with huge tattered billboards that act as screens where the characters’ intense emotions can be conveyed in close-up. One also hides a live orchestra, playing the clever Terry Davies extension of Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen suite. There’s a walkway, lined with telegraph poles, pushing the action into the auditorium.
It is on this long walkway that the charismatic bum Luca strolls, responding to a “wanted man” ad and encountering not only the dull Dino, but his dissatisfied wife, Lana, and a hapless apprentice Angelo. In the story that follows, Bourne mixes up the story of Bizet carmen and both versions The postman only rings twicethen adds his own twist (Luca has an affair with Lana and Angelo) to bring about an inevitable tragedy.
It’s an incredibly good narrative, filled with energetic, skillful group dances (including a 1950s interpretive dance pastiche) and duets that convey complex relationships with absolute clarity. One of Bourne’s great gifts is pausing action and letting meaning sink in when he needs to; its rhythm is refined.
The dancers seem to stretch their bodies to the extreme, each gesture alert. It’s like they’re touching your nerve endings, the skin ripped off. While the leads – Zizi Strallen as sex-hungry Lana, Will Bozier as Lost Luca, Paris Fitzpatrick as vulnerable Angelo and Kayla Collymore as Lana’s kind sister Rita in the performance I saw – are excellent, what’s so impressive is the verve and commitment with which each of the 39 dancers performs. It’s amazing.
So is Christopher Wheeldon like water for chocolate. This new adaptation of Laura Esquivel’s magical realist novel about enduring love, loss and food, set in Mexico over three generations, has a fluency and beauty that sweeps you away with cinematic ease from scene to scene. With Bob Crowley’s colorful and inspired designs as an ever-changing backdrop, Wheeldon unfolds the action with absolute confidence and rich imagination.
What’s going on is always clear, even if he sometimes stutters slightly in his desire to be faithful to every detail of the book. Joby Talbot’s score, superbly conducted by Alondra de la Parra, who also served as music consultant, doesn’t always help; sometimes it’s too propulsive for the sake of the dance. Particularly in the rash first act, I longed for moments when the dance could breathe and relax instead of rushing to the next thing.
This was particularly true because the play contains some of the most beautiful and delicate choreography Wheeldon has ever produced – moving group dances, graceful duets, all beautifully danced by a cast that included Francesca Hayward, Marcelino Sambé, Laura Morera and Matthew Ball, serving so much character and steps with full understanding. I left smiling.
Star ratings (out of five):
the car man ★★★★★
like water for chocolate ★★★★