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Matthew Bourne's Early Adventures

by Stuart Sweeney

May 21, 2012 -- Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, UK

This triple bill forms part of the celebrations for the 25th anniversary of Matthew Bourne's company, originally Adventures in Motion Pictures and later New Adventures.

Formed in 1987 with students fresh out of London's Laban Centre, these AMP works cover a period from 1988 to 1991. It is astonishing that in this early period Bourne's flair for comic dance using distinctive movement was so well developed. Originally seen in small venues around the country, this revival fitted beautifully into the 1500-seater Sadlers Wells, where New Adventures is a resident company.

“Spitfire” has been seen at Galas and special events from time to time and remains a hoot. Bourne's inspiration was men's underwear catalogues, where he said the models looked like RAF pilots who had forgotten to put their clothes on. It's also a satire on the 19th C. traditions of the danseur noble, where there was much posing and not much else. Opening in a tableau reminiscent of Perrot's “Pas de Quatre”, the dancers swan about with their noses in the air, upstaging the competition, and taking themselves very seriously indeed, despite the sections having titles such as “Variation 2 – Cellular Singlet and Thermal Pant”. Technical virtuosity in the choreography is nowhere to be seen, although there are witty and original configurations, and the excellent young cast provides all the humour and smooth posturing the work demands.

“Town and Country”, the longest work on show, illustrates the life of sophisticated Londoners contrasted in the second half with country bumpkins. Set in the thirties, “Town” includes a hilarious pastiche of “Brief Encounter” with two couples in unison, right up to the end where one of the women dashes back from the platform to the arms of her forbidden love. This section also signposts the way to the later “Play Without Words” with multiple dancers mirroring the roles. A delicious double bath scene has servants nimbly employing towels to cover the naughty bits as their master and mistress dance around the room. A touching duet for Tom Jackson Greaves and Christopher Marney shows Bourne already succeeding with forlorn love as a theme. “Country” opens fittingly with a country dance - a fine example of choreography, using the space to great effect and with eye-catching movement with quick turns and outstretched arms. A clog dance is also great fun as the two exponents get carried away into more and more complex steps, watched in admiration by some enthralled stuffed animals, until a hedgehog is stepped on and killed. “Country” concludes with the hedgehog's funeral and manages to be sad as well as funny. As Bourne said of his later work, he isn't happy unless he sends people home with a tear in their eye.

“The Infernal Gallop - a French Dance with English Subtitles” gives us Bourne's perspective on how the Brits see Paris. Given that these three works would never have been played together in their first incarnation, there was a worry that Bourne's choreographic style could become repetitive. But the jokes are so good that “The Infernal Gallop” conquers all. Christopher Marney again excels, thie time as a mermaid in a dressing gown and sock suspenders swimming lugubriously round the floor to “La Mer”. A gay scene, in the modern usage, features a pissoire and two studs repeatedly thwarted by a jolly group of singers entering at le moment critique.

Overall, these dances have stood the test of time remarkably well and might persuade Matthew Bourne to consider making more pieces with the philosophy “small is beautiful” alongside his large scale successes.

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