A sharp pair of Scissors

Times Staff Writer

YOU have to hand it to Richard Winsor, 24 and Sam Archer, 25, the two English dancers who alternate in the title role in Matthew Bourne's "Edward Scissorhands."

In the dance-theater re-imagination of Tim Burton's 1990 film "Edward Scissorhands" -- which starred Johnny Depp as Edward -- the two men somehow manage to make dancing with a collection of unwieldy scissor blades standing in for the five fingers of each hand look easy.

Bourne, the choreographer noted for reinventing such classics as "Swan Lake" and "Cinderella," says he recognized an Edward-like vulnerability in both young men that he thought would help them realize just what this misfit role is cut out to be. "They are not completely confident guys; they are pretty modest, easily embarrassed, quite shy in some ways," Bourne said. "I thought this was going to help them find this character in themselves."

Offstage, things don't always appear quite so effortless as they do onstage, the performers admitted. When the two first started preparing to dance the role, they would often do their work alone in a small downstairs rehearsal space wearing their scissors, while the rest of the cast worked upstairs.

"Once, the fly on my trousers came undone, and they fell down, and we couldn't get them back on," Winsor said. "And we couldn't pick up the phone to ring someone for help."

Even though the blades are made of a lightweight carbon fiber, not heavy metal, the dancers have also gotten themselves into a few scrapes -- literally. Nothing serious but enough so the performers say they have heard an occasional "Ow!"

"When we were working on the duets, we came very close; we'd swing an arm and it would come dangerously close to a face," Winsor said. In early rehearsals, he said, dancers wore swimming goggles to protect their eyes from the fast-moving blades.

Added Archer: "And sometimes offstage, because we have so many quick changes, we have to try not to hit people. There have been no major accidents yet" to people, although Bourne noted that one pair of scissor hands was chopped to pieces when it got caught in a fan in the wings.

In a conversation last week on the plaza of downtown's Los Angeles Music Center in front of the Ahmanson Theatre, where "Edward Scissorhands" plays through Dec. 31, Winsor and Archer talked about the pleasures and frustrations of sharing this cutting-edge role.

Both dancers have long histories of performing with Bourne; they had roles in Bourne's "The Car Man" and "Play Without Words," which played in 2001 and 2005, respectively, at the Ahmanson. Before being double-cast as Edward, the two were already close friends and coincidentally shared an apartment for two years during the development of the show.

"It was quite freakily close, actually," observed Winsor, a sturdy 6-footer with sandy hair and a cherubic face who achieved honors as a rugby player before turning to ballet.

But Archer, slightly smaller and wirier at 5 feet, 11 inches, with dark hair and a chiseled jaw, pointed out that the duo brought different personalities, as well as different strengths and weaknesses, to the table, and in developing the role were able to lend each other a hand, so to speak.

"Just generally, we're different people, we've trained in different ways," Archer said. "I think in a way our different personalities kind of shine through the characteristics of Edward Scissorhands."

In his review of "Scissorhands," Times dance critic Lewis Segal takes note of the dancers' physical and stylistic differences: "Winsor ... looks a little like Matthew Perry and seems to believe his character is destined for happiness, for full acceptance in the strange suburban world that adopts him. In contrast, Sam Archer ... resembles Kevin Bacon and is more profoundly alienated, sweetly hopeful only when love-struck."

Said Bourne: "Richard's training comes from classical dance college; Sam's college background is musical theater, he sings and tap dances and that kind of thing. I would hate for them to be exactly the same.

"I would say that Sam is more of a comedian -- his father was a stand-up comic, and he's very good with comic timing; he's a quirky, stylish dancer. Richard loves going for the emotion, pulling the heartstrings, that's what he'll go for -- he's a very big, out-there dancer."

In reality the hands are not quite as vicious as they appear. Despite their weighty look, the hands weigh only 7 pounds each. The forearm and fingers are attached with covered elastic bands to a series of metal rods, joints and hinges that allow the dancer to manipulate the blades collectively by moving the wrist, or individually with each finger.

Bourne said that each handful of cutlery appears fuller because the blades face every which way. "It's very cleverly designed to look more complicated than it is, more confusing," Bourne said.

When he decided to do "Edward Scissorhands," Bourne was already a converted fan of the clippers. "I was excited by them in that I knew they would restrict in some way, which is always a bonus," he said.

In manipulating the hands, Winsor and Archer said that they have to take care to keep their wrists straight. "If you ever go off on a tangent, you could get a sprained wrist or tendinitis; it's not very nice," Winsor said. Lifting partners requires relying on other parts of the body rather than the hands. The two have also worked consistently with a physical therapist on learning how to protect their back muscles from injury.

Despite awkward moments such as the pants incident, the dancers said that spending time rehearsing away from the rest of the cast lent an authenticity when they finally joined the group.

The scissor hands, said Winsor, "help everyone else in the cast get into character, because if we actually come near them, they have to cower away. There is a sense of fear about them, of intrigue.

"The great thing about the hands is they kind of give us a sense of character; they can really express how we're feeling through how they move -- how excited we are, or how tense," Winsor continued. "As dancers, they kind of extend the range."

Added Archer, "It was very hard for us to really feel like Edward until we suddenly got the costumes and the hands for the first time and felt transformed. With the hands, you felt helpless, really -- you had this disability."

As a choreographer, Bourne felt a transformation as well. "Obviously to begin with, it was very difficult to dance with someone, because they were always getting in the way," he said. "It was trial and error; you keep working things out. Eventually the girls got more daring of being close to them, and it started to come into place. I thought they would be more limiting than they actually ended up being.

"That was sort of the fun of it, really; doing something that you would never do in any other piece. The combination of beauty and danger together is a very exciting mix."

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diane.haithman@latimes.com

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'Edward Scissorhands'

Where: Ahmanson Theatre,

L.A. Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through 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 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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