(Sadler’s Wells, 19 July 2015)
When I went to see Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty two years ago, I wrote about the frustration that I often feel when trying to understand classical ballet, and my corresponding fondness for Bourne’s irreverently gutsy style of storytelling. My favourite production by him will always be Swan Lake (the Adam Cooper version), but my first encounter with him was via a TV broadcast of The Car Man when I was a teenager.
I think it was on at a stage when I was trying to be cultured, and so my mum and I settled down to watch this ballet set to the music from Carmen, which sounded suitably highbrow for my pretentious adolescent purposes. Needless to say it wasn’t quite what either of us were expecting, but it made a powerful and enduring impact. Now this seminal production is back in London for a very short time and I was lucky enough to get to see it live at last.
Bourne famously doesn’t provide synopses in his programme, preferring the audience to interpret the story for themselves, but he has said that The Car Man is loosely based on the classic film noir The Postman Always Rings Twice. It’s the classic story: a tall, dark stranger walks into town bringing trouble in his wake. In this case that stranger is Luca (Chris Trenfield), who turns up looking for work in the little town of Harmony, with a strong Italian-American community.
Dino (Alan Vincent – who danced the role of Luca in the original production) is looking for another mechanic for his motor-repair shop, but his ‘man wanted’ sign takes on an ironic quality when his wife Lana (Zizi Strallen) sets eyes on Luca. Desire simmers under the surface, driven on by the summer heat and the dalliances of the young mechanics and their girlfriends, and it is only a matter of time before the sexually-charged situation explodes into danger. While Lana plays with fire in seducing her husband’s newest employee, her sister Rita (Kate Lyons) pines after sweet and sensitive Angelo (Dominic North). This bookish lad has been ruthlessly tormented by his fellow mechanics but Luca soon takes him under his wing and teaches him to stand up for himself… and a few other things, behind Lana’s back. And all the while Dino lurks in the background, cumbersome and slow, but perhaps just beginning to understand what is happening in his domain. Lust and jealousy collide in a potent cocktail that, all too soon, leads to murder and revenge.
I should clarify that, unlike Swan Lake, the Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty (the other Bourne shows I’ve seen), The Car Man doesn’t stick to Bizet’s own arrangement of the Carmen music. Bourne took his point of departure from the Carmen Suite, a reinvention of Bizet’s music in 1967 by the Russian composer Rhodion Shchedrin; but, as that is only forty minutes long, he asked the composer Terry Davies to work his magic on the rest of Bizet’s score. The result might be rather discombobulating if you know Carmen well, but it works perfectly for the sleek and sexy setting of Bourne’s ballet. It’s quite a modern sound, by turns gleefully exuberant and creepingly eerie, and there were several moments where I was reminded not so much of Bizet’s toreadors as West Side Story.
Bourne translates the showy swaggering of his characters into a gloriously earthy, muscular style of choreography. Much of his work inverts the usual emphasis of ballets by focusing attention squarely on the beauty of the male body, and that’s very much the case here. This is dancing with grit under its fingernails: raw, sensual and audacious. Bourne has perfect comic timing: he manages to make the piece humorous without ever undermining the sense of danger and predatory sexuality. And he’s able to offer sudden contrasts: for example, the sweetness of Angelo and Rita’s pas de deux against the erotically frank, occasionally crude dancing of their companions. His style may not have the formal, lyrical lines of classical ballets, with their elegant gestures and the graceful obfuscation of strong emotions, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less demanding.
His dancers have incredible skill. Luca’s first solo, in which he asserts his place in the local pecking order – flirting with the women and idly squaring off to the men – is a masterpiece of physical control. After the frenzied dancing of the mechanics and their girls in the opening scenes, Luca’s arrival raises the bar not by adding in flashier moves but by echoing their style of dancing and making it slower, more powerful and perfectly executed. I was amused to see hints of the Swan in his dancing: there were gestures and movements that looked very familiar, and I wonder whether Bourne has a kind of choreographic shorthand to indicate domineering maleness. Similarly he is very good at suggesting the awkwardness of those who don’t have physical confidence. Much of Angelo’s choreography suggests the crippling shyness of someone who is uncomfortable in his own body – much like the Prince at the beginning of Swan Lake – and North beautifully expressed the character’s emotional torment in a physical way, twisting his body in a peculiar mixture of gaucherie and gracefulness.
It’s interesting that I should have seen this the day after watching Alcina. Both are shows driven by erotic power, but they couldn’t have been more different: Alcina was awkwardly, uncomfortably deviant for both cast and audience; but The Car Man pulsed with a simple, primitive, almost savage physicality. Matthew Bourne could teach the choreographers at Aix a thing or two.
Ultimately Bourne is a storyteller: he strips a plot back to its bare essentials to tell a narrative which is urgent and raw, and his dancing has the same quality. There is no throwaway prettiness here, just magnificently blunt, expressive and gripping choreography performed by an immensely talented cast. As Bourne says with wry humour in the programme, it’s never going to be suitable for the Sadler’s Wells family Christmas slot, but it’s the kind of dance that goes straight to the solar plexus. On the night I went, as the lights blacked out at the end, there was an almost immediate roar of acclamation and the entire audience was on its feet, applauding, even before the dancers had got themselves in gear for a curtain call. It was a thrilling reaction.
For me, I must confess, nothing will ever be able to match Swan Lake, but The Car Man is highly recommendable nevertheless. And, even if you can’t make it to Sadler’s Wells before the run closes on 9 August, the original production is available on DVD. (And the excellent Sleeping Beauty will be back for another run at Christmas.)