Choreographer dances to a different tune

Fixing cars and breaking hearts in Matthew Bourne's version of Bizet's "Carmen"

by Nobuko Tanaka

Choreographer Matthew Bourne, leader of his London-based Adventures in Motion Pictures company, shot to fame when his gay version of “Swan Lake” took the West End and Broadway by storm after being premiered at London’s Sadler’s Wells theater in 1995.

Though he changed the swans from hens to cobs, cast a man — Royal Ballet star Adam Cooper — in the leading female role of Odette/Odile, and set the whole thing close to the present, his was no mere assault on a classic love story. Not sensationalist, but sensational, Bourne’s “Swan Lake” re-created the work in his own original style. Odette — classically a tragic heroine — became a symbol of temptation who threw the minds of others (and likely many in the audience) into a whirl. In 1999, Bourne’s transformation of the fairy tale into a powerful human drama won him Tony Awards both for Best Director of a Musical and Best Choreography.

Now Bourne, who turns 42 this year, is back, with another twist on a classic. This is not “Carmen” as we knew it, but “The Car Man,” playing at the Bunkamura Orchard Hall in Shibuya until April 21. Using Bizet’s music, but with a male dancer taking the role of the enchantress, Carmen, and set in the 1950s or ’60s in a nowhere town called Harmony in the American Midwest, Bourne once again taps rich seams of invention.

The first scene is reminiscent of “West Side Story,” with the corps strutting and squabbling outside a garage. We realize they are striving vainly to vent their youthful energies in this one-horse town. Then, into the routine lives of Harmony’s apparently upright citizens comes Luca, an attractive, sexy drifter whose presence in their midst tempts and tests these simple folks one after another — men as well as women. With the appearance of this outsider, Harmony’s social harmony collapses fast, eventually leading to murder.

In “The Car Man,” Luca clearly embodies the locals’ hidden desires, while the two-story staging adds a marvelous filmic split-perspective as, for instance, we see through an upstairs window Luca and Lana, the garage-owner’s wife, making love — as Dino, her husband, returns and begins to climb the stairs. It’s as if Lana had been waiting for Luca’s appearance to cast off both their humdrum existence and also their inculcated morality. In short, “The Car Man” is a human drama of people’s susceptibility to fatal desires — whereas the legendlike “Carmen” is about a femme fatale.

This time round there is no standout dance scene, like Odette’s solo in “Swan Lake,” but there are many memorable original dances perfectly suited to Bizet’s music.

Particularly notable are three main supporting dancers, Scott Ambler (as garage-owner Dino, Luca’s boss); Vicky Evans (Lana, Dino’s wife); and Ewan Wardrop (Angelo, a young mechanic who becomes another of Luca’s lovers). Specifically, Ambler’s acting throughout, and Wardrop’s dancing in the first scene of the second act, were marvelous. Regrettably, though, Alan Vincent, the Car Man, was unconvincing as a love/lust character and lacked romantic charisma.

But despite this central performance, this production is bursting with energy and creativity, as the company’s name — taken from the label on an entertainment pack Bourne was given on a China Airways flight — would suggest. Surprises and movie-like action run through these “moving pictures,” making “The Car Man” difficult to categorize as either musical or dance — though a superb stimulus to the imagination, it certainly is.