Matthew Bourne’s Early Adventures is a glorious retrospective of the multiple Olivier and Tony-Award winning choreographer’s ground-breaking early works, put together now in celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the birth of his New Adventures dance company. Brought to stages all around the country, some venues, like Lighthouse, Poole’s Centre for the Arts, are playing host to Bourne’s work for the very first time, giving local audiences a rare opportunity to glimpse the extra-ordinary talents of this iconic company, and see ‘what all the fuss is about’.
Those familiar with his later, high profile works (the all-male Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, The Car Man), will not be surprised that the three pieces that make up Early Adventures are crammed full of the of the wit, eroticism, playful subversion and joy that have become Bourne’s stock in trade. There is not a dance (or life) cliché that is not explored or turned on its head. Not a gender role left unchallenged. All this done so deftly and so naturally, and without being in the slightest confrontational or ‘preachy’, that within minutes of the curtain rising you utterly forget that a female dancer lifting a male one is anything but the norm. And where some of the imagery might have shocked or challenged audiences 30 years ago (and would still cause parents to face awkward questions when they get home if they didn’t heed the age advisory for this show), today is remarkably greeted with gales of laughter from a knowing and appreciative mainstream audience, revelling in the liberation from long held sexual stereotypes and constraints.
The first piece, Spitfire (first danced in 1988) is a witty parody of classical ballet, and is portrayed through the preening and posturing of four male underwear models. Underscored by the sublime music of Alexander Glazunov and Leon Minkus, this short piece is a real crowd pleaser, and perfectly sets out the choreographer’s stall by blowing away convention from the word go.
Town and Country (1991) is a ballet in two acts. The first, “Town” is a joyous examination of the English upper-classes at play. Set sometime in the 1930’s in a plush hotel lobby, we largely follow the exploits of a young rich couple, bathed and pampered by the servants, and of two coy, and reserved, gentlemen who find they cannot fight their mutual attraction. There is also a delightful pastiche on Brief Encounter, and the uplifting and evocative musical accompaniment comes from the likes of JS Bach, Edward Elgar, Noel Coward and Rachmaninov. Personal highlights include “By the Sleepy Lagoon” (by Eric Coates) and, in a typically subversive twist, the soaring “Land of Hope and Glory”, where the audience’s anticipation is wickedly built up to fever pitch, and rewarded not by a huge, monumental, patriotic display in dance, but by a modest, banjo playing “George Formby”esque maître d – brilliant!
“Country” is more wistful, and exaggerates the idolised vision of country-folk that “townies” probably still hold to this day, complete with clog-dancing farm hands, cavorting milk maids, and friendly hedgerow animals. Bittersweet in tone, it conveys the happy-go-lucky, free spirited air of the country, in routines such as “Country Gardens” (Percy Grainger), mixed with the harsh realities of back-breaking work, poverty and death. The haunting “Shallow Brown” (also Grainger), and the surprisingly sad Hedgehog’s funeral (yes I know it is only a puppet, but still…) are particularly effective.
The final ballet, “The Infernal Gallop” (1989), takes on our perceptions of the French, and of French culture, again mixing up the established gender roles in dance. Both indulging and exploding the rather disapproving English idea of street pissoirs, matelots, apache dancers and torch singers! With suitably evocatic music, including the classic Edith Piaf anthem “Hymne’ a l’amour”, which never fails to extract a tear or two, the cheery “La Mer” (by Charles Trenet and Albert Lasry) and Offenbach’s “Gaite Parisienne”, the mood is perfectly set, and then subverted by Bourne’s exquisite and boundary-stretching dance. Again, to thwart our expectations, the inevitable can-can is re-imagined in a delightfully ironic and understated way, and far from making you feel short changed, brings you right in on the joke.
The nine strong cast of girls and boys not only dance superbly, as you would expect from this world-class dance company, but display a huge talent for visual comedy and pathos. It is impossible to single out any-one performer as they all shine equally. Same too for the creatives, but Les Brotherston’s designs and Andrew Murrell’s lighting so expertly complement Etta Murfitt’s staging, that they do warrant special mention.
I cannot profess to be an expert or even a particular lover of ballet, and I certainly would not have gone out of my way to travel far to see one – perhaps because of the preconceptions of stuffiness and stereotypes that Bourne so expertly debunks – I have never consciously thought about it. But Bourne’s work opens up a whole new world and has surreptitiously conquered a prejudice I never knew I had.
Early Adventures is joyous, life-affirming, inspired and inspirational.