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Flash Review 1, 10-5: Soap Ballet
Bourne Again "Carmen"

By Kelly Hargraves
Copyright 2001 Kelly Hargraves

LOS ANGELES -- Matthew Bourne, whose "The Car Man" opened last month at the Ahmanson Theater here, has been lauded for adaptations. His all-male production of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" and his "Cinderella" took the theater world by storm. He is to be commended for bringing contemporary dance to the general theatergoing public. With "The Car Man," set to Bizet's "Carmen," Bourne translates the traditional story of Carmen so that it now takes place in a small midwestern town called Harmony in 1960. The chorus is now a group of young mechanics, waitresses and teens. The seductive gypsy character is now the strapping young stranger Luca, who takes a job as a mechanic in the town. His introduction soon leads to a a tangled web of sex, deceit and betrayal between Luca, his paramour Lana, (the boss's wife) and Angelo, the younger, confused boy Luca also seduces. These aren't your standard story-lines for contemporary dance -- more akin to the soaps.

Maybe it's a question of semantics, but I've always made a distinction between dance theater and theater-dance. Dance theater implies the abstract, imagistic, physical theater style favored by Europeans like Ultima Vez and DV8 or Canada's Carbone 14. Theater-dance is more akin to musicals and Broadway dance. Well, "The Car Man" blurs these distinctions for me. True, it is full of original choreography and no speaking parts, but because it's set in a clearly defined form, it is something other than abstract, physical work.

The performers are actors with clearly defined roles -- even the program notes that all the characters have proper names. There is no dialogue, but the choreography clearly tells the tale. The dance is structured as a classic drama, to introduce characters, the story and the conflict. Vignettes are acted out and group movement sequences are smoothly interspersed to comment on the story.

Bourne has a wit and sense of humor that pervades the work and a sensibility that allows him to shock with images of sex, violence and drama and still make for an enjoyable evening of entertainment. What it doesn't make for, though, and maybe this is what distinguishes it from "dance-theater" for me, is a sense of visceral display of art through movement. Although, there are striking images, they don't transcend to touch a deeper, more profound level. Many times it feels like the choreography is hanging around waiting for the musical piece to end. Interesting how such heady subjects seem to be the stuff of shallow imagery while something more subtle, less-direct, more abstract, can become the stuff of lasting impact. It's like stuffing a DD bra with Kleenex tissue.

"The Car Man" travels to Toronto, Boston and other cities before it plays in New York in 2002. Bourne is using the tour as part of the choreographic process, still developing the piece and setting the cast. In each performance, roles are played by a revolving cast -- each role having four different cast members. So each night is different from the one before. This may be some of what I sensed as the lack of "depth" to each character and their actions.

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