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Matthew Bourne's 'Edward Scissorhands':

Shear Theatre

by Cecly Placenti

March 22, 2007 -- BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, Brooklyn, NY

Seven-pound gloves with scissors for fingers slice through the air, sometimes graceful, sometimes awkward, often dangerously close to the faces of other dancers. But with each snip and tinkle, the hero of Matthew Bourne’s “Edward Scissorhands” communicates volumes without saying a word. In fact, no one talks in this dance musical, an adaptation of the 1995 film of the same name. Yet what the dancer/actors get across to the audience is unmistakable: the beauty of being able to see past people’s outward appearances to who they really are.

As the lonely, unfinished creation of an eccentric inventor who lost his son, performer Sam Archer has a slightly more difficult challenge than Johnny Depp did in the film 17 years ago. Depp brilliantly used his endlessly expressive face, aided by the angles and close-ups provided by movie cameras, to convey Edward’s confusion, isolation, love, longing, and pain. Archer, having no such aid, had to project very subtle emotions to a packed opera house and make sure the audience member in the furthest balcony seat felt what the person sitting in the first row of the orchestra felt. With the physical sensitivity and awareness of a dancer, Archer excelled. We laughed, cringed, gasped, and yes, even cried.

Bourne is a master storyteller, and his takes on the classics are witty, sentimental without being saccharine, and deeply passionate. He casts performers who look like real people and provides all the thrilling magic audiences accustomed to Hollywood films and Cirque du Soleil could want, thus making dance and theatre accessible to a wider, younger audience.

The storyline diverges from that of the beloved cult film in ways that make it more appropriate for the stage, yet diminishes none of its power. For those audience members who have seen the movie, they will not walk away seeing that film transposed onto the stage scene by scene. What they will walk away with is the same feelings, the important emotional nuances. What marks Mr. Bourne’s success is his faith in the bond between performer and audience and his ability to make that initial connection and then solidify that trust that deepens the bond as the show progresses.

What a film cannot do in terms of a very real and deeply centered emotional connection – a give and take between audience and characters – is what makes live theatre so vital, so immediate, and so powerful. Even more than spoken drama, dance depends very much on that bond. What the characters are thinking and feeling are not laid out in dialogue but must be conveyed in subtle movements and postural adjustments. When done correctly, as New Adventures in Motion Pictures displayed, the experience runs deeper, audiences are moved without completely understanding why.

Like Petrouchka, the rebellious doomed puppet in Michael Fokine’s ballet, Edward is a not-quite human being who longs to be real. As in the movie where Depp had very few lines to speak, those blades were far more memorable. They quivered with unspoken emotion, trembled when the awkwardly stiff Edward is nervous or when desire for Kim Boggs, the daughter of the suburban family who takes him in, inflames him. They clatter in frustration when he’s upset and clang triumphantly when he is leading a holiday dance.

Those cumbersome hands could rightfully be seen as a choreographer’s nightmare. But Bourne saw them as a challenge. He invented new ways for Edward to lift and partner Kim (Hannah Vassallo), who wore swim goggles in rehearsals until the choreography was safely perfected. Bourne’s choreography definitely serves the plot, and while it is apparent that the steps require skilled performers, the superb cast of dancers make you feel that this is dancing anyone could do should a backyard barbeque turn boisterous.

The Christmas party was lively with “real” dancing, except that Edward’s intoxicated state allowed him to whip off crazy whirls and technical feats. Archer’s pas de deux with Vassallo was lovely but lacked the invention that could have been born out of dancing with scissors for hands. While there were moments of support and lifting with auxiliary body parts, I wanted to see much more interesting things done with that theme.

But the fact that Bourne set and overcame the challenge of expressing Edward’s journey though the art of his dancing, moving him from robotic pantomime to goofiness, confidence, and despair more than made up for it. The dream duet, in which Edward, minus the albatross around his hands, dances with Kim, involves low key pas de dux vocabulary and lots of hand holding along with an ensemble of human shaped hedges. These topiaries, designed and created by Edward and his deft scissors, provide arches for the lovers to wind through, yet their steps are basic.

Borrowing from story ballets, musicals, and movies, Bourne has created a new form of dance theatre unlike any one of them. His fairy tales are for the 21st century, with a gritty edge and pertinent depths lurking beneath their over-the-top theatricality. By the final curtain we see Edward, the manufactured outsider, as more human than the creepily static townspeople who eventually reject him.

As a final testament to his character, Sam Archer approached his ovations with trepidation, shock, humility. The audience felt his longing to believe the applause before him, the acceptance, and then the rush of childlike joy when he finally did. In a final magic moment, one more graceful twitch of his blades in graciousness, Edward made snow fall on his audience, and with it redemption, love, and a bond only great theatre can create.

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