There’s never really been a term for Matthew Bourne’s particular brand of storytelling -- a cinema-influenced, live-on-stage mixture of dance and theater, with few fancy steps and never many words. Yet in the last decade, the London-based Bourne’s own story has been one of acclaim in both Britain and the United States as a theatrical master of vibrant, original and crowd-pleasing entertainment.
In 1997, Angelenos saw the American premiere of his “Swan Lake,” in which the birds were all men, and two years later his “Cinderella” also had its first U.S. run here. Two years after that -- again at the Ahmanson -- “The Car Man” used Bizet melodies from “Carmen” to underscore the tale of a seductive drifter in the 1960s and his effect on a small Midwest town.
Bourne himself has been all too happy to have such labors go unlabeled. “It’s all about storytelling,” he says. “I’ve always felt ultimately it’s a good thing that people can’t absolutely categorize my work. It means it’s a bit different and it’s individual.”
But during the next few months, Southern Californians will have a chance to see two very different examples of his uncategorizable work, and the task of pigeonholing him is apt to preoccupy a lot of people anew. First there’s “Nutcracker!,” his radical re-imagining of Tchaikovsky’s holiday perennial, which will play at the Orange County Performing Arts Center Dec. 7-12 and UCLA’s Royce Hall Dec. 15-Jan. 2. Back at the Ahmanson, his most recent foray into dance theater, “Play Without Words,” will receive its West Coast premiere in April. Plus, next month in London, the West End will welcome a stage version of “Mary Poppins,” not only choreographed but codirected by him. And on the drawing board is a ballet version of Tim Burton’s 1990 film, “Edward Scissorhands.”
Still, whatever project he undertakes -- including choreography for English revivals of “South Pacific” and “My Fair Lady” -- Bourne says he never calculates in advance how many steps or how much acting his creations will require.
Seated downstairs from his office in the cafe at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, where “Nutcracker!” played to sold-out houses last winter, he explains: “I don’t do musicals unless I feel there’s something I can give to them that’s not already there. It’s the same with the ballets. There’s no point in doing them unless you feel there’s something new that you can add to it that’s going to wake people up a bit to the piece.”
The 44-year-old Bourne, who didn’t start dancing until he was 22, formed his first company, Adventures in Motion Pictures, in 1987. By 1999, he had become the first British director ever to win a Tony Award for both best director and best choreographer in the same year, and in 2002 he started a new company -- called, aptly, New Adventures -- breaking with his producer Katherine Dore but working with most of the same dancers who have helped him develop a unique voice in modern dance theater.
“Nutcracker!” was actually the first ballet Bourne choreographed, a decade ago. But in his reworked version, adults play the children, banished to a sinister orphanage. Audiences will recognize the story line, albeit with twists on the traditional characters and enough bright costumes and fantasy for the kids but also sufficient winking camp references for grown-ups in search of a bit of twisted Christmas nostalgia.
Bourne says he’s learned a lot about how to communicate without words in the last decade, and this new version, he believes, reflects his increased skill at storytelling and characterization.
“When I first did ‘Nutcracker!,’ the mood of each scene was sort of generalized,” he says. “The dancers I work with work like actors now, because they’ve come from doing pieces like ‘Swan Lake’ and ‘Car Man,’ and they want to know why they’re doing what they’re doing. The reason I attract certain performers is because they’re as interested in acting as they are in dancing. So in looking at ‘Nutcracker!’ again after 10 years, I was working with good people who weren’t going to just accept simple [directions like] ‘Now you’re happy,’ ‘Now you’re sad.’ ”
Says performer Scott Ambler, who has worked with Bourne for a long time: “Over the past 10 years, Matthew has gotten much clearer not only about what he wants to see on stage, but how to achieve it. He’s much more comfortable and articulate about describing what is a nonverbal process.”
These days, Bourne has his dancers write the life stories of their characters before they even start rehearsing. “ ‘Nutcracker!’ is a very light piece,” he says. “You can’t really delve very deep, but we have a conversation about everything, to apply a logic to things that happen even in Clara’s mind, the sort of logic that helps the actor-dancer and gives a reason for the audience as well.”
Everyone involved, he stresses, took pains to make the ends tie up as neatly as a well-wrapped Christmas package: The individuals you meet in the orphanage in the first half, for example, each display traits of the outlandish characters they will become in the second half.
“Play Without Words,” Bourne says, is the furthest he and his company have gone in acting out a story without words. What began as a three-week experiment during former National Theatre director Trevor Nunn’s final season ended up as a sold-out show that was reprised under the theater’s new director, Nicholas Hytner, who has since given Bourne carte blanche to create another show. Bourne says that having a rehearsal space and a budget to pay the performers was “a gift,” and knowing that “Play Without Words” had to run for only a few weeks encouraged him to take a risk.
“I said, ‘If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. We have a chance to try it,’ ” he recalls. “Whereas most things I do have a lot riding on them -- backers and having to sell tickets for periods of time -- so there’s a certain amount of pressure. Whereas with these things, we can try an idea that seems off the wall and see if it goes somewhere.”
Based on the 1963 Joseph Losey movie “The Servant,” “Play Without Words” has the same premise: Young rich guy in ‘60s London buys a house, has a girlfriend, employs a manservant -- and a series of ambiguous flirtations play out. Bourne has added a new character and developed an edgy jazz score with composer Terry Davies, who did the music for “Car Man.” “Normally I want the music to be all glorious stuff you can lose yourself in and it makes you want to move,” he says. “Here, I wanted the music to tell us the story and give moods and character, but not inspire them to dance.”
“With Matt, the music is a much greater element than with other directors,” says Davies. “He gives me a very general feel for where we are in terms of mood and drama, and then I go away and write something to provide atmosphere. And what he does with it always surprises me.”
In the show, the interpersonal intrigues are portrayed as a kaleidoscope of shifting loyalties and moods, and Bourne often uses a trio of dancers playing the same character at the same time.
“It gives you more possibilities,” he says. “Or it can show what someone’s thinking, or what happened an hour later or an hour before. That’s the theatrical device that makes the piece work as theater. Some of those scenes could have felt too small on a big stage with just one person or one couple. If you give it a whole stage picture of subtle things going on, it helps the overall impact.”
But some viewers, it seems, have told him he puts so much onstage they’re afraid of missing things. “I say, ‘Well, actually, when I want you to see something, you’re looking at it, because that’s how we focus it.’ The other stuff’s just there for fun, to build the atmosphere and to create a real world so the characters aren’t just vessels.” Although he acknowledges that technically, a play doesn’t have film’s ability to zoom in, he and his dancers do create moments they refer to as close-ups, when the audience’s attention is drawn to something small happening onstage -- something Bourne has outlined with staging and light.
And rather than trying to tie up all the storytelling loose ends, as in “Nutcracker!,” Bourne deliberately left the mystery in “Play Without Words.” He says he also used a different approach for wordless theater than he has in the past for theatrical dance.
“All my productions have scenes in them that are acted -- mime acting or whatever you want to call it -- scenes that have got nothing to do with dancing, really,” he says. “In productions like ‘Nutcracker!,’ ‘Swan Lake,’ ‘Car Man,’ there are significant parts that go off into a dance number. The reason ‘Play Without Words’ is nearer to a play is because it’s almost the other way ‘round: We only used dance when we felt like it was relevant or could say something or would add something to what we were doing. So it was primarily about acting, and creating stage pictures through any means other than speaking. The decision was not to rely on dance at any point to carry the piece.”
In addition, he had the performers watch films of the ‘60s, then act out scenes minus the dialogue, to study the way gesture and movement could lend themselves to portraying the changing relationships and intriguing set of boyfriend-girlfriend and master-servant pantomimes in the show.
A turning point
Before “Play Without Words” opened, Bourne says, he was afraid that people would ask, “What is this dance piece doing at the National?” But he says he was surprised that both the family-style “Nutcracker!” and the more experimental “Play,” which premiered close together, were received on their own terms by the British press, which had been obsessed with asking whether Bourne’s category-defying art form was theater or dance -- a question that has surely preoccupied critics more than it has his fans.
In fact, the shows, Bourne believes, constituted a turning point.
“I don’t know if I’m just imagining it, but I felt that the press started to look at me for what I am rather than for what I’m not,” he says. “I felt that I had sort of arrived in the sense that ‘Yes, this is what can be done in this area of work that he does, and here’s two really different examples of it.’ And they were enjoying whatever form this is -- and I don’t know what it’s called -- and not trying to say there’s not enough or this or that in it, or telling me what I should or shouldn’t be.”
If critics have stopped telling him what to be, however, it seems that Hollywood executives can’t resist trying to make Bourne -- who is admired more for his storytelling skills than his pure choreography -- into a movie director.
“I think if I was gonna do it, I would have done it by now,” he says. “I’ve certainly had the opportunities. But I really like what I do, and I understand it. I’m not sure I know how to make a film.
“Sometimes you think because you love something that you know how to do it, but it’s not true. It’s usually other people who want you to do things, who push you into it, tell you how good you’d be at this. And actually you’ve got to listen to yourself sometimes. I’m not an overly ambitious person. I do things because I really want to do them and I believe that they’ll work.”
For the record, he says, he wouldn’t turn down a chance to choreograph a movie, adding that he has long wanted to reconceive “Swan Lake” for the screen.
“I always pitch it, but no one’s brave enough to do it. I think it could be a really amazing Baz Luhrmann-esque experience for people, something they’ve never seen. I think that would be really interesting because I’d be on ground I felt really passionate about -- using the music and filming it in a way that was original. But as soon as I see a script, really, I don’t know what to do with it.”
Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 7-11; 2 p.m. Dec. 11 and 12; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 12
Price: $25 to $75
Contact: (714) 556-2787 or www.ocpac.org
Where: Royce Hall, UCLA
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 15-17, 21-23 and 27-30; 7 p.m. Dec. 18-19 and 26; 2 p.m. Dec. 18-19, 22-24, 26, 29-30 and Jan. 1
Price: $35 to $75
Contact: (310) 825-2101 or www.UCLALive.org