I’m glad for Matthew Bourne that he was able to confide in The New York Times, “I do take pride in what I’ve made.” But we know what pride cometh before, and in the case of his new—what?—now running at B.A.M., the fall is calamitous.
As it happens, I didn’t like either his famous all-male Swan Lake (I saw it only on video, but that was enough) or his Play Without Words. The first seemed to me a perverted take on a great work (not because of its gender-bending, but because it distorts rather than refreshes the original); the second because it was far too busy being clever. But both these pieces were effective in their “Look, Ma, I’m daring” way.
Edward Scissorhands is effective in no way. The question—so often asked about Bourne pieces—isn’t “Is it a dance work or a theater work?”; it’s “How can this acclaimed showman have put together something so tedious and empty?” Even Bourne’s most fervent admirers acknowledge that he’s not exactly a Balanchine or Ashton when it comes to steps: “So it’s not Concerto Barocco,” says The Times, defensively. But who said that it should be? It only needs to be good at what it sets out to do. “Matthew Bourne’s latest creation may not impress dance purists, but he makes no apologies for his popular success,” says The Times. In other words, Bourne is democratic, a true populist, while we “dance purists” are elitists or, even worse, snobs. It’s the same argument that Peter Martins’ defenders trot out to deflect the criticisms of the “Balanchine purists.” What it adds up to is that you’re a purist if you insist on standards. But, ladies and gentlemen, “popular success” doesn’t necessarily imply “lowest common denominator.”
Bourne gives us frantic activity in place of creative energy, the story-telling excitement of a third-rate comic strip and a total absence of movement invention. The crime of Edward Scissorhands is that it’s so boring—which the Tim Burton movie certainly wasn’t. If you haven’t seen the movie, here’s the gist of it. The orphaned, teenage Edward, whose hands have been replaced by an armory of flashing scissors, is adopted into a caricaturey 1950’s suburban world but is ultimately destroyed. You see, he’s … DIFFERENT. And we all know that the 50’s were about uniformity and the rejection of Individuality. Yes, the Girl comes to love him, but she can’t save him: Different Edward must die.
In the Bourne version, getting to that death takes two hours of doodling: endless stretches of arch and vacuous production numbers that don’t even add up to pastiche. Every Broadway musical I’ve seen in the past 60 years, including some all-time disasters, has provided more amusing and more various dance material. (Forget Robbins and Fosse; I would have been grateful for Grease.) There’s an outdoor barbecue number, a Christmas-dance number, a hair-salon-opening number, a dream-sequence number. That last one has the only original idea in the show: dancers as topiary. When they ran onstage all sculpted and pruned, my heart lifted. But then Edward and his girl began to dance, and it was the same old dream: the one Agnes de Mille invented for Oklahoma! in 1943. (De Mille, by the way, was highly popular—and a real choreographer.)
And she had talented dancers. Opening night at B.A.M. gave us Sam Archer as Edward. He’s nice-looking and has a beguiling smile, but that’s it: no charisma, no inner life—in a role we identify with Johnny Depp! I’d call Archer a big hole at the center of the show, but the entire show is a hole. (Can a hole have a hole?) The girl, Kerry Biggin, was equally dull. Clever sets and brilliant special effects aren’t enough when everything else on the stage is dead, long before Edward himself is.
What can have drawn the canny Matthew Bourne to this thankless task? I can only imagine that he was fascinated by the question, “Can one put together a romantic duet between a girl and a boy who has blades in place of hands?” Now we know the answer: Yes.
I hope he’s satisfied.