LEZ BROTHERSTON loves a challenge. That’s one reason he’s the perfect match for Matthew Bourne, the choreographer-provcateur whose wide-ranging imagination might daunt a less creative collaborator. Bourne has become a pop icon famous for spinning fresh tales out of well-trodden classics. Crucial to his success is Brotherston, a master at translating the wildest notions into sets and costumes that exude so much personality and fit so indispensably into the action that they seem like members of the cast.
“My relationship with Lez is the most important one in my career,” says Bourne. “His great gift is that he is so fluid, ready for anything. He understands all the things dance can do in terms of telling a story.”
Such talents have made the 45-year-old Brotherston a sought-after designer of dance, opera and theater in his native England. In America, however, he is known mainly for working with his countryman Bourne. Their first international triumph was a stunning 1995 “Swan Lake” that offered a host of potential design headaches including a prince-bird romance and a hunky corps de ballet. Since then they have sent Cinderella into the wartime Blitz, transformed Carmen into a bisexual drifter, and played power games with a frisky set of servants and masters in ‘60s London.
Their current venture, which opens at the Ahmanson Theatre this week, is one of their trickiest -- a reimagining of Tim Burton’s 1990 film “Edward Scissorhands.” The bittersweet fable about a boy whose inventor gives him shears for hands has such devoted fans and is so visually distinctive it’s a mixed blessing for a team determined to tell old stories in new ways. “I’ve learned the key is to understand what people love and be true to that,” says Bourne, “while also offering surprises.”
Typically, Brotherston is more blunt. “Why do something if you aren’t going to do more than make the same thing?” he asks. “Burton’s creations are fantastic. Colleen Atwood’s costumes are brilliant. But I’d be mad to reproduce them just because that’s how they’d done it. What we’re doing isn’t a copy of the film. It’s born of our own logic. It will be recognizable, even if we arrived by a different route.”
The stage version, which debuted in London a year ago, relies on movement and music (Danny Elfman’s film score, with additions by frequent Bourne collaborator Terry Davies) to bring us Edward’s adventures in suburbia. At first he is welcomed by a tract full of stylized sitcom families and flirts with feelings of self-discovery and of love -- for cheerleader Kim -- until his neighbors turn fickle and his nemesis -- a jock and rival for Kim’s affections -- engineers his downfall.
Bourne has tried to heighten the humor and emotional resonance -- “we want to break people’s hearts a little more” -- while Brotherston has riffed on the movie’s comic-gothic wonderland with his own form of magic realism.
“My job is to make a character and make a world for that character,” says Brotherston, “then make you believe in that character and that world. I don’t look at how to create another white tutu.” Indeed, his costumes are not typical dance fare, designed from the waist up with tights and slippers below. His sets are interactive playgrounds, ingenious and suggestive, nimble enough to handle the shifting moods and points of view that are Bourne trademarks.
“Working with Matt keeps it interesting,” Brotherston says, “because I keep testing myself. Designing is about solving problems, and about solving problems with others. Everything has to be balanced so you can’t tell what is what. It may be the acting, the visuals, the music. It’s the whole experience that moves you.”
Focusing on the story
THE son of a seaman and a factory worker, Brotherston grew up in Liverpool, where he was a backstage denizen of the local youth theater. He studied at the Central School for Art and Design in London even though, he says, “drawing didn’t come naturally -- it still doesn’t but I’ve developed a way of communicating my ideas through sketches rendered my way, and by saying, ‘Trust me on this.’ ”
After he left school, Brotherston built film and TV props until he established himself as an opera and repertory designer. In the late ‘80s he started working with Christopher Gable’s Northern Ballet Theatre in Leeds. “Christopher didn’t have the resources for a top-flight technical company,” says Brotherston, so he urged his casts to ignore tradition and “think, act, be more about theater than dance.” Brotherston developed his interest in storytelling while designing for Gable, a former Royal Ballet principal who died in 1998.
Meanwhile, Bourne was presenting audacious pieces with a tiny touring troupe. After making a splash with a 1992 “Nutcracker!” set in a Dickensian orphanage, he was preparing to mount “Highland Fling,” a devilish urban update of the 19th-century romance “La Sylphide.” His regular designer was unavailable and recommended a friend from Liverpool. Bourne and Brotherston hit it off over coffee.
“I saw how great it would be to work with someone closer to my age who had similar tastes,” Brotherston recalls. He and Bourne, who is 46, enjoy collaboration, disdain convention and want dance to be more accessible. “Whenever I’m asked what my greatest achievement is I tell them it’s not a particular production,” says Brotherston. “It’s that in my years with Christopher and now my years with Matt we’ve taken our work to a new audience.”
While they share artistic sensibilities, Bourne and Brotherston differ in other ways. The affable Bourne has a boyish face and a dancer’s build. Brotherston’s close-cropped reddish hair sets off eyes that can look impish or fierce -- reflecting both a naughty side and the bulldog intensity with which he gets down to business. “Matt’s the charmer and I’m the spiky one,” says Brotherston. “It’s quite a good balance, especially when we do a good cop-bad cop thing over something like money.”
While Bourne enjoys revisiting other people’s pieces as well as his own, Brotherston craves new projects. “You’re only as good as your next show,” he says. He often asks Bourne, “What are we doing next?” while maintaining an active outside schedule. (He has half a dozen productions opening in nine months.)
Over the years the two men have developed a relationship that borders on telepathic. “We have our own language,” says Bourne. “I never tell him what to do. We share thoughts, then he goes away, and comes back with something.”
No image better illustrates that process of creative combustion than those feral swans. In the mid-'90s, having shaken up “The Nutcracker!,” Bourne took on another Tchaikovsky chestnut. “Matt had this vague notion--male swans -- but he didn’t want it to be a travesty,” Brotherston says. They refocused the narrative on the troubled prince and his unrequited need for love embodied by creatures that needed to look animalistic, but not silly or grotesque. Photos of Nijinsky as the Faun came to mind. Bourne found a picture of an East Indian dancer adorned in fringe. Brotherston crafted knee-length pants covered in chiffon that he ripped, knotted, washed and twisted. Black beaklike stripes were drawn down foreheads and noses. Everything else was bare skin. “If you have men dancing you want to show their masculinity,” Brotherston says.
“Swan Lake” made Bourne a star on both sides of the Atlantic, especially after then-Center Theatre Group artistic director Gordon Davidson brought the production -- and Bourne -- to America in 1997. (All of Bourne’s subsequent dance pieces plus “Nutcracker!” have played in L.A.). The buzz about “Swan Lake” as “gay ballet” soon was overshadowed by raves about its stark beauty and stylish humor. Brotherston, as happens with designers, didn’t gain popular attention but he did win a Tony for the show. He received an Olivier Award for the 1997 “Cinderella,” a huge production that flowed from Underground to ballroom to ruins of London. Three years later he stripped the theater of flats and wings for “The Car Man,” Bourne’s sultry reinvention of the Bizet opera “Carmen” -- in reaction to both the scale of “Swan Lake” and “Cinderella” and budget constraints, practical matters such as financing and touring capacity being a big part of a designer’s life. The 2002 “Play Without Words,” inspired by Joseph Losey’s 1963 movie “The Servant,” was so highly improvised, Brotherston says, “the set happened before the music or story were written. I designed the world, and then we put people in it.” His costumes murmured sex from undergarment to overcoat and his swirling central staircase assumed a life of its own.
Dancing with scissors
FOR designers, says Brotherston, “necessity inspires the best work.” “Scissorhands” is a prime example. How to evoke -- without mimicking -- the movie’s sad-eyed title figure portrayed so poignantly by Johnny Depp? How to construct glorious yet ominous scissorhands that can be danced in without benefit of camera angles and special effects? Creating the eerie outsider stuff might seem easy compared to revealing -- as Brotherston tries to do -- the inner soul, in this case a childlike spirit scarred by the inability to touch or be touched without hurting others.
“We began by asking, ‘What would a boy made by an inventor look like?’ ” Brotherston says. “What would you make him out of?” His Edward wears what he calls “an anatomical suit stitched out of sofa leather.” He and a prop maker struggled to find the right material, size and balance for the hands. In the end they attached 18- to 20-inch blades to spring-loaded gloves that dual leads Sam Archer and Richard Winsor learned to manipulate with the help of a physiotherapist and hours of practice. (In early rehearsals performers wore safety goggles.)
Edward uses his scissors to wow his neighbors -- and the audience -- with his flair for topiary. Bourne and Brotherston wrestled with the costs and complexities of building sample shrubs until Bourne suggested they turn dancers into plants. Initially, Brotherston was a bit skeptical. Then he dyed and waxed, sorted cube heads and disguised eyeholes. Onstage, Edward’s handiwork glides through an enthralling dream ballet, Brotherston’s designs blending with the performances, the music, and Bourne’s conceptual genius and choreography.
With “Scissorhands” on its 12-city American tour, Brotherston is eager to begin another project with Bourne, or with Adam Cooper, the former Royal Ballet and Bourne star with whom he co-directed a 2005 dance version of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.” (On his wish list are shows based on Nijinsky’s life and the Anne Rice novel “Interview With the Vampire.”) He also would like to design costumes for a movie. Does he ever aspire to gaining top billing himself?
Not really. “I know what I do,” Brotherston says. “Matt knows. Everyone who works in theater understands. That’s enough for me.”
Where: Ahmanson Theatre,
135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: Opens Wednesday. 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Dec. 31
Price: $30 to $90
Contact: (213) 628-2772