At Kennedy Center, One Sharp 'Scissorhands'

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 9, 2007

It was one of the strangest, most fantastic and resolutely romantic film fables of the MTV-blase era, part "Frankenstein," part "Beauty and the Beast" -- and although there wasn't a pas de deux in it, there was something inherently balletic about the way Johnny Depp lifted his futile arms -- fringed with knives and shears like the desperate wing feathers of a black swan -- into the falling snow. "Edward Scissorhands," the 1990 cult hit about a shock-haired specter with the soul of an artist, now has that dance treatment, perhaps not coincidentally, from the choreographer who first saw ballet's other Black Swan as a man in leather: iconoclast in chief Matthew Bourne.

Bourne's "Edward Scissorhands," which was a huge hit in London last year and has been touring the United States since November, sweeps into the Kennedy Center on Tuesday for eight performances. To say it cuts through the chaff of a lot of modern dance stagings is an irresistible understatement; it's family-friendly (albeit a little tragic for the most tenderhearted), brilliantly set and often brazenly funny. The two main group numbers, a pool party that turns into a "Bandstand" bop and a Christmas swing dance, are so elaborately conceived, with dancers cutting in and out -- and those glistening scissor hands cutting so close -- that they're exhilarating, even as they emphasize Edward's outsider status and his longing for the cheerleader-perfect Kim.

Bourne is remarkably faithful to the spirit of the original story, although a few details have been changed. For those who haven't seen the film, Edward's creator dies -- here thanks to the taunting of the teenagers Kim hangs out with -- leaving him to fend for himself in a world of pretense, greed, vanity and cruelty he can't understand. He is adopted by Kim's family, although she and her football-jock boyfriend ridicule him, and he eventually becomes a sort of town clown, a pet freak with a talent for topiary and hairstyling -- the one-week wonder Monsieur Edwardo. It ends as all such "monster" stories do, with the villagers chasing him, and, though the enlightened Kim professes belated love, there is no place in the real world for this gentle soul.

Though Bourne's "Edward" has been referred to as a ballet, it is actually dance theater, with passages of near-pantomime interspersed with more kinetic numbers. Bourne himself is a latecomer to dance -- he didn't start lessons until he was in his early 20s -- and his body of work (a phrase that he probably uses with a punster's pleasure) is classically grounded but clearly postmodern in the dance sense, with bits of jazz and juke and Jerome Robbins tossed in. It's "Fosse, Fosse, Fosse," "Martha Graham, Martha Graham, Martha Graham" and "Twyla, Twyla, Twyla," as Robin Williams would say.

The sets are superb, especially the very Burtonesque wreck of a castle, more "Addams Family" room than Frankenstein's lab; the cookie-cutter town of identical pastel houses; and the moonlit and magical topiary garden. (Designer Lez Brotherston also gets credit for the costumes.) The special effects are so remarkable they're almost distracting: As the curtain rises on Edward carving the giant ice angel, sprays of frozen dust erupt from his whirling implements. He trims his first topiary on stage and cuts the flame-dyed bob of his round-heeled neighbor into an avant-garde marvel with only a little more stage legerdemain.

This "Edward's" humor is broader than the movie's (although, given that there are no words, the action has to be pretty obvious). The adulterous redhead wears clothes cut down to here and up to there; the lower-class nosey neighbors are outfitted in a dirty undershirt (he), a kerchief full of curlers and hideous capri pants (her), and jointly saddled with a baby (doll), who is generally flung over one shoulder or another. Edward, trying to ingratiate himself, offers his various implements as barbecue skewers and impromptu castanets -- and to his bewilderment, finds that some women are aroused by them -- before being tricked into using them as weapons.

Bourne might be called the Bettelheim of ballet. Though he often seems to be free-associating the way young children do, melding various fairy tales or favorite stories (or classic ballets), he frequently luxuriates in the dark side of the fantasy. His "Nutcracker" is a sort of "Oliver Twist" meets "A Charlie Brown Christmas," set in an orphanage rather than in a mansion and with ambiguous homoerotic undertones. "The Car Man" is a cross between "Carmen" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice." "Highland Fling" is "La Sylphide" set in the drug culture of modern-day Glasgow, Scotland. (It is interesting to note that the Sylph in "Highland Fling" has her wings cut off with gardening shears.)

The famous recasting of "Swan Lake," with male dancers as the corps of swans and a "Hamlet"-like Oedipal tension between the Prince and his mother, has a ferocity and predatory thrill almost unique in modern dance. Bourne is reported to have said that his "Swan Lake" is in part a nod to Hitchcock's "The Birds," itself a masterpiece of psychological and sexual threat. ("Swan Lake" is glimpsed at the climax in the 2000 film "Billy Elliott," when Billy is cast in the dual role of the head swan and S&M-ish black-clad stranger.)

Bourne is also an unabashed lover of pastiche, often dancing right up to the edge of kitsch. He has set "Cinderella" as a World War II-era canteen musical (with, of course, a fairy-like godfather). The new stage version of "Mary Poppins," for which Bourne won an Olivier (the British Tony Award), has some music-hall routines and chorus numbers that are charmingly old hat. And there are moments in "Edward Scissorhands" that so strongly evoke "West Side Story" -- particularly in the beginning, as the town's "cool" teenagers plot to terrorize the broken old inventor -- that you keep waiting for the dancers to snap their fingers.

And Bourne is immensely clever: One of the most striking sequences comes early on, when the half-dozen families are "characterized" by cruising town in invisible cars, their bodies lurching and bumping and cornering with hilarious distinction. The all-American Boggs clan sits brightly upright in a very nearly visible Studebaker or Buick; the overwrought, repressed preacher is accompanied by a submissive wife and a back seat of Goth kids; the politico and his postcard-pretty wife wave all the way to the podium; and the blue-collar couple jerk in a clunker that periodically stalls on them. They all bob and weave with a precision and eye-popping complexity that has something of a vintage Disney cartoon about it.

The most touching scene may be the dream passage in the topiary garden that Edward has created for Kim, during which his sculptures, half flora, half fauna, come to life. The monster, too, is a creator.

Edward Scissorhands Kennedy Center Opera House 202-467-4600 Tuesday through Feb. 18

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