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MATTHEW BOURNE

How shall we dance?

by Nobuko Tanaka

This summer, the movie that shot Johnny Depp to Hollywood stardom, Tim Burton’s 1990 fantasy “Edward Scissorhands,” comes to Japan as a live dance stage created and directed by Matthew Bourne.

Following its November 2005 London premier, a U.K. tour of the production played to full houses and drew countless standing ovations. Bourne’s take on the story of an android named Edward, the creation of an old inventor living in a Gothic mansion on top of a hill, looks set to emulate the English director-choreographer’s success here with his “Swan Lake,” that famously features male-only swans. Bourne’s version of that Tchaikovsky ballet has, since its 1995 premier, been credited with no less than “changing the face and feel of dance forever.’

Not mere sci-fi fantasy, “Edward Scissorhands” is a romance and a tragedy, too. When the old inventor dies suddenly, Edward, his incomplete life work who has scissors where his hands should be, comes down to the village at the foot of the hill. There, he is taken in by a housewife called Peg, and slowly becomes popular with her friends due to his special skill at hair-cutting and shaping trees into artistic forms of topiary. But from then on, due to his love for Peg’s daughter, Kim, things begin to turn sour. When his novelty has worn off, a small misunderstanding leads to him being chased out of the village. Then, even Kim — though she loves his pure, kind mind — tells Edward to return to his own world and live peacefully there on top of the hill.

The classic movie — memorably featuring a leather-clad Johnny Depp in clownlike makeup — is one of Bourne’s favorites. Now, his own theatrical staging of the story has become a dance classic in its own right, too, just as his “Swan Lake” and “Nutcracker” have in the years since Bourne’s choreographic debut with “Overlap Lovers” in 1987.

During a visit to Tokyo last week, 46-year-old Bourne made room in between rehearsals to talk exclusively to The Japan Times about “Edward Scissorhands,” his own influences and much more besides.

When did you get the idea to stage “Edward Scissorhands”?

I saw the film in 1990, but I didn’t think about putting it on the stage at that time. Back then I only had a very small company with six dancers. We were touring small British venues, and couldn’t contemplate such a big project at that point. But I just thought it was a great and very unique film.

The idea to stage it came about eight years ago when some friends of mine who are composers asked me to give them some ideas for a new musical. So I wrote down 10 ideas, and “Edward Scissorhands” was the first one that came into my head.

Then I thought, “actually I’d like to do that — I don’t think I’m going to give it to them” (laughs).

As I thought about it, I realized that the reason I liked it so much was because of the music of Danny Elfman — it’s so theatrical. So then I started the process of trying to meet the people involved, such as Tim Burton, Danny Elfman and Caroline Thompson, who wrote the story and screenplay. I met Caroline first through my friend, the actor Alan Cumming, as he was making a film with her. She loved the idea. Then I met Danny Elfman. He was very keen on the idea as well. I didn’t know Tim Burton, and he didn’t know my work, so I needed to get him to see something I’d done. It took a while. Then, he understood what it was and he said, “I can see you doing this, and I understand what it is you do — a narrative, story-telling without words with dance and whatever . . .” Then, once Tim had given his blessing to it we had to get the rights with 20th Century Fox. So, all this took a long time and I nearly gave up on it few times, although I always had this scenario I was working on with Caroline and was sending it backwards and forwards to her in California. It really took a long time to come together.

When did the actual production start?

Last year, we did workshops in the summer to work on the hands, to make them work and to experiment with movement and duets and so on. Then we started the rehearsal in late August. We only had five weeks’ rehearsal and then a technical week, and we’ve been performing it ever since (laughs). Beforehand, though, there was a lot of preparation, working on the design with Lez Brotherstone from the beginning of last year. We designed all the costumes and the sets were designed before we started the rehearsal, so most of last year I was working on it.

Has Tim Burton been involved with this production?

No. He wanted me to have the freedom to do what I wanted. We have changed it quite a lot, so now it’s very different from the film. I think, as a director, he understood that to direct something you need freedom — not someone telling you what to do, because I think he probably had that in Hollywood. He said, “I don’t understand what it is you do really, it’s so different from what I do. So you must do your thing.” He told me “I’ll give it to you.” It was so generous, because it is a very personal piece.

What were the particular difficulties choreographing for a dancer wearing such big scissorhands — and what are they made of?

The scissorhands are like leather gloves with brass attachments and blades on each finger. They’re made of a sort of firm plastic and painted to look more dangerous. They are still quite dangerous, though, and they are bigger than in the film. I found it a blessing to have something unusual and difficult to work with; it is creative and exciting and it makes you do something different. For example, if you are doing a male and female love duet, it’s so hard because it’s been done a million times. But if he’s got those hands on, then you think, “How do we do this?” — and then instantly you start working and you have ideas, so it’s just about finding a way of lifting a partner onto the shoulders without using hands, all sorts of things, you know. Also, he takes up lots of space on stage when his arms are spread, so you have to really give him space.

In the film, he wears different pairs of hands for each scene, to do particular things like lifting a cup or whatever. But in the way we developed the hands, he can have the same ones all the way through.

Your masterpiece “Swan Lake” was a completely new interpretation of the classical ballet story. Is this “Edward Scissorhands” loyal to the original film?

Not really, because my “Swan Lake” is also loyal to the ballet story. It follows the ballet in a straightforward way, and it’s still the same story, basically. This “Edward Scissorhands” also has the same basic story as the film, though I added a prologue about how and why Edward was made. The character of the inventor, the Vincent Price character in the film . . . we showed him as a younger man with his son called Edward. Then Edward is playing with scissors in the garden when there is a thunderstorm and the scissors are struck by lightning and he dies. After that his father’s grief turns him a little crazy and he starts to make another son — which is Edward Scissorhands.

Scissors become very significant, because they were the last thing the inventor saw his son holding in each hand, and so he makes his android son in that image. None of this is in the film; it was just a way of explaining and gives an emotional reason for why he was made. The single pair of scissors becomes significant for our ending as well, which is completely different from the film. There is an ambiguous ending about how he sort of disappears — you are not quite sure what really happens, but he turns back into a pair of scissors, really. It’s just completely different.

How did you read the Edward Scissorhands story? Is it a love story?

It is a love story, a strange love story. That’s one aspect of it, and it’s a story about seeing what’s inside someone rather than what’s on the outside. That’s what Kim learns, so that’s about her character — but also it’s about how a community treats people who are different, and his hands are symbolic more than anything.

I see it in many ways. It could be a handicap, some kind disability; it could be a racial thing; it could be a sexuality thing; or it could be just someone being made fun of at school for being short or having red hair or whatever. I think that’s what’s quite universal about the story. Audiences identify with him and remember when they felt different when they were in a new place or when they went to a new school and people made fun of them for some reason. That’s how we deal with people like that, how we treat them.

Initially, people were scared of him and then they wanted to get to know him because he was so different, and because he was excitingly different they wanted to meet him. Then they turned against him because he was different, and they decide they don’t want him there. It’s like a group mentality, so I think that’s what it’s about. I like those themes; I like the theme of an outsider character. I’ve used it in other pieces, there’s usually a character like that.

What adaptations did you make particularly for the theater?

It is a pointless exercise to try to re-create a film on stage. You’ve got to approach it as theater and think what’s important in the film, what images are important — you know, ice sculpture, topiary, snow, the suburban world, the Gothic world — you’ve got to include those, but how do you include them? For example, with the topiary we have a scene where Edward watches Kim, the girl he fell in love with, with her boyfriend. He imagines what it would be like to be normal and to be with her, and he dances with her with normal hands as he sees it like a normal boy, and it’s done in a kind of magical setting where all the topiary that he’s created comes to life, and we have dancing topiary people. So there is a whole little ballet at the end of the first half where Edward and Kim dance with this dancing topiary.

That’s a good example of taking images from the film, then turning them into something theatrical and dance as well. Our budget did not allow us to do filmlike special effects, but we do have little tricks and things we do. The audience knows what we are doing really, but it’s done with lots of fun and wit. It works well; it’s theater, and though it’s quite simple it means such a lot and makes you think. In “Edward Scissorhands,” as we’ve done it on the stage, it is a piece of theater — it doesn’t feel like watching a version of the film. Everything in it is different, even his costume is different. There is only one scene in our whole show which is similar to the scene in the film. That’s the ice sculpture scene, where Kim comes into the back garden and sees he’s made an ice sculpture of her. And she dances. Hardly anything else in our show is actually in the film. It’s weird, but it’s true.

How is the stage set by Lez Brotherstone this time?

It’s always been brilliant in all the pieces I’ve done with him. He can make a space and a set, which is a sort of playground, and he can turn it around and into other things. You can also light it in a different way and it looks like something else. He is very good like that and you don’t have to change the whole set to create a new setting. It’s very beautiful to look at in the show. Another thing he is very good at is making everything look like it costs a fortune — but it’s actually not too bad, although he makes it all look spectacular.

You have a double cast, with Richard Winsor and Sam Archer playing Edward in separate performances. Are they very different?

Very different. It’s worth seeing them both — if people can afford it (laughs). I intentionally picked people who are little bit different because I thought they had strengths they would help the other one with, so they created their roles together. Richard is a little bit more emotional in terms of the way he gets the performance across, he is very touching. Sam is very quirky and funny and witty, more of a character. Richard has a classical background, so his partnering is very good. Sam is from musical theater, he’s a great tap dancer, so we used that kind of thing. They taught each other, and now they’ve met somewhere in the middle. Richard learned about the humor from Sam, and Sam learned to let the emotions out a bit through Richard, and it’s been really good and they work as a team and they are very good friends. It’s the fourth show they’ve done with me, though they are still quite young — they are both 24.

When did you first become interested in the theater?

I was born in East London, so I am a Cockney, and when I was young I was always getting kids on the street to put on shows in a garden or in my bedroom. I went to a church and sang in a choir and I used to do shows there as well. Then I had my own song-and-dance company when I was 16 or 17 — with all amateurs. But I never did any professional training, and I’d never done a dance class when I auditioned for the college I went to. I just was self-taught, so I didn’t know about dance and I only knew what I knew from watching TV and films, and I copied it. I loved MGM musicals and Fred Astaire and stage musicals and the “Chorus Line,” things like that. It felt like a different world when I went to train at 22.

Why did you choose dance to express yourself in the end?

I did search around for a while, because it was obvious I wanted to be involved in the arts in some way. I tried acting when I was 15, but I didn’t enjoy using my voice, I didn’t like speaking. Dance just seemed to be the thing I fell into that suited me, maybe because it’s physical and I fell in love with watching different sorts of dance — ballet and contemporary dances — and I loved it when there was a story being told. It just felt very natural to me because my form of expression in theater is non-verbal — and it’s become very wide for me what that is. It’s not just about dancing, it’s about acting, it’s about any way of telling a story visually. In some ways, it is a very filmic thing as well — a film tells a story through imagery, you know, not necessarily with a lot of speaking in some films. I was a big film fan when I was a kid, and theater too — that’s why the kind of dance I do now is very much influenced by film and theater, and it’s also why it appeals to a much wider group of people than the dance fans, because it connects with people who like cinema and theater.

Who were your heroes when you were growing up?

Many, many, many . . . My lifetime idol is Fred Astaire and I like a lot of dancers from that era — Fred and Ginger [Rogers], and I love Buzby Berkly. I love a lot of ballet people, I have a lot of dance influences. I like Mark Morris and the Royal Ballet choreographer Sir Fredrick Ashton, and I like watching Margot Fontaine and I love looking at all the pictures of Nijinski although I never saw him dance. I love that era; the Russian ballet. I love Hitchcock films, too, and they are always a big influence on what I do, as they are great story-telling, humor and suspense mixed together with glamour — and I love lots of old British films. I always discover new things, and at the moment I am watching lots of Federico Fellini films, and [Luchino] Visconti as well. My video and DVD collection is enormous. I am always going from one thing to another and looking for influences and ideas. I’ve always been like that since I was a small child. I looked toward the past; I liked the old films and old music — singers from the ’30s or ’40s. I didn’t necessarily like current things. My favorite singer is Ella Fitzgerald. I have always been like that.

Do you have any ongoing project now?

I don’t have any new one yet, and I’ll give it this year to think about it. However, I’m doing “Mary Poppins” on Broadway later this year. So, I’ve got lots of things happening this year. I am so busy. “Edward Scissorhands” will tour the States after here, and “My Fair Lady” is touring and “Swan Lake” is continuing to tour — it will be back in London at Christmas, and it’s going to Australia for the first time. So, I’ve got four shows I’m looking after (laughs).

You visit Japan frequently. What do you like about this country?

Well, we always got good support here. In fact, Horipro [the production company for the Japan tours] support our productions now even before they are made. So we knew we are coming with “Edward Scissorhands” before we even started the rehearsal. They did not even need to come and see it.

There is a loyalty here in the audiences, too. When people ask me why you come to a certain place, I always say it’s because we were invited. I give the same answer when I’m asked why do you not go somewhere — because nobody asked us. We love touring and we love to make relationships with places. We feel very strongly that we have a good relationship here in Tokyo, both with Horipro and with our audiences. They are people who will come again and again. You feel like you are coming home, in a way.

What is your life ambition?

I am sort of doing it, really. To have my own company is such a privilege and pleasure for me. To be running my own dance company and working with talented people and developing them is what I always wanted to do. I could have done other things. I’ve been offered other things, like to direct films and do pieces for big companies, but I always said no, as our company comes first. That’s what I see myself doing in the future, because I love it and it’s mine. There are very few people who can say they have something that’s really theirs, which means I can do whatever work I want — that’s a privilege. Most people don’t get the chance.

In the end, what do you want to provide for society with your productions?

I like making people happy. That can mean making them cry as well. Entertaining people, I’ve got a very old-fashioned view of that, that I want to entertain people. I don’t do it for myself; I want the people to have a fantastic time. It’s very simple really, there isn’t any big message — or if there is, it’s just something to think about, something surprising and something entertaining, that’s what I want.

People loved your “Swan Lake,” including its critical point of view, for example about the British royal family. Do you try to add some political message in your works?

That is the point of what I said about “something to think about.” To think about “does this work?” . . . “is this making a story?” . . . “is this true to this piece?” I like people making their own minds up. That’s where dance can be quite good, because it’s not absolutely clear what it is. You have to do a bit of work as an audience and use your imagination. When you read a novel, in your head you are imagining the places and people and what they look like, and you sort of visualize it in your head.

With dance stories, you are telling yourself the words you think they are saying to each other, and the feelings they are feeling, as they are not saying on stage, “Oh, I’m in love with you,” etc. Then, you think and develop what they are saying in your head. It’s the other way around. That’s why I think the audience find it’s very rewarding, because they have lots to talk about afterward. They have told the story to themselves in a way.