Cutting-Edge Theater

Dancers rehearse Matthew Bourne's
Dancers rehearse Matthew Bourne's "non-verbal theater" adaptation of the Tim Burton film about a bionic young man. It plays at the Kennedy Center Opera House through Sunday. (By Bill Cooper)

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By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 13, 2007

PHILADELPHIA -- Blades for hands? Check. Scarfaced actor in black, a ringer for Johnny Depp? Check. Haunted-wonderland music? That too.

Dancing topiary? Right-o.

Dancing topiary?

Well, yes, because this is a dance adaptation of the offbeat Tim Burton film "Edward Scissorhands" that we're talking about. It played here at the Academy of Music on its last stop before its opening tonight at the Kennedy Center Opera House, where it appears through Sunday as part of the ballet subscription series -- even though there is not a soupcon of ballet in it.

Except for the topiary. The leaping shrubbery appears when the unfortunate Edward, a tender Frankenstein with hands out of Julia Child's knife drawer, imagines himself as the perfect suitor for the girl he's in love with. In his reverie, he romances her in a garden of artfully clipped evergreens (which, as fans of the 1990 Depp vehicle will recall, Edward has sculpted with his built-in shears), who waltz and pinwheel in a veritable boxwood ballet.

This unaccountably moving display, along with the rest of the show, sprang from the mind of Matthew Bourne, the director-choreographer who recast "Swan Lake" in modern-day London with a flock of male swans cruising the heir to the British throne. That production, a wordless dance-theater work accompanied by the full Tchaikovsky score, was a multiple Tony Award-winning Broadway hit and is still on tour. Its surprising success proved that a healthy audience exists for Bourne's genre-bending art, a hybrid form that tells stories through plot-driven movement and the musically timed look, rather than dialogue.

Some have called Bourne's works "dance-icals," but Bourne prefers non-verbal theater. In his "Edward Scissorhands," as in his "Swan Lake," his "Car Man" (a looking-for-Mr. Goodwrench rendering of the opera "Carmen") and his "Nutcracker" in a Dickensian orphanage, his performers act, but they neither speak nor sing. And though his productions involve musical accompaniment, they are not at all like your typical concert dance -- and Bourne admits to being "a little worried about" the inclusion of his least-dancey creation in a ballet series.

For starters, the members of his company, New Adventures, are a mix of ballet and modern dancers. They look like regular folks, not bone-thin virtuosos, and their dancing is, to use an acting term, a form of complicated blocking. It spins organically out of the characters' behavior and gestures.

All of which complicates a stage production about a lab-engineered man with a lethal grip. For starters, how does a guy with scissors for hands grab a dance partner?

Very carefully.

"We had a few accidents," Bourne said mildly, in a recent phone interview from his home in London. "The girls wore swimming goggles to begin with. But they steamed up, and no one had any peripheral vision. Eventually, everyone learned about how far away from [Edward] they should be."

Bourne said he came to like having the restriction of the blades, which forced him to devise hands-free partnering. In most of the lifts, for instance, the women Edward dances with cling to other parts of his body. Breaking with convention, Bourne does not cast his strongest dancers in the starring role.

"I didn't want a confident virtuoso playing the part" of Edward, he said. In keeping with Edward's character as the ultimate outsider -- a naive freak who stumbles into a cookie-cutter American suburb after his reclusive inventor-father has died -- Bourne says the performers who play the role "need to be not totally confident with themselves." This allows the actors to feel something in kind with the character. The skintight Goth-ish costume also helps; the performer is pretty helpless once he's encased and has strapped on the leather gloves fitted with springs, brass attachments and blades (plastic, natch).

In fact, Edward is not much of a dancing role. He starts out stiff and awkward and only gradually becomes more human. Being new to the idea of normality, he spends much of the first half of the production watching the other characters, an assortment of randy housewives, oblivious dads and hormone-crazed teens whom Bourne brings to life with irreverent flair. (While the movie version's look was High Psychedelic Retro of an indefinite time period, Bourne has anchored his retelling in a gleefully color-splashed 1950s.)

Much of the work involves energized gesture and mime, but there are several moments when out-and-out dancing spills onto the stage: there's the backyard barbecue scene, which becomes a cross-generational culture clash. There's also a lively, liquored-up Christmas party set to 1940s swing tunes (which is what the parents would listen to, Bourne reasons), and a sweet duet for Edward and Kim, the object of his affections, in the snow.

Then there's the topiary's inspired waltz, which Bourne calls "a little Ashton ballet," referring to the masterful English choreographer Frederick Ashton, who was not above creating dancing vegetables. Out of the whole somewhat subversive celebration of Americana, this segment returns Bourne to his roots: "It feels very English," he says. "It's like an English garden, and topiary is a very English thing."

The fact that Edward has all the grace of the Tin Woodman and has a tough time fitting in to suburbia made for a far bigger dance challenge than the scissors did. "Dancing a solo right off wouldn't have felt right," Bourne said. Also, there are all the other characters to introduce, the members of six families with whom Edward interacts; Bourne does this in roll-call fashion, briskly whirling them in and out of their doorways for brief, telling character studies. (He is enormously helped by Lez Brotherston's fabulously kitschy costumes and set, with its row of ranch houses in postwar-prissy ice cream colors.)

Working with a defined story, rather than one he derived himself, was also a constraint. But Bourne departs from the film in many ways; he adds a prologue depicting Edward's back story, and inserts several scenes of his own imagining.

This was fine with the filmmakers -- and they are a choosy lot. They had been approached before about "Scissorhands" offshoots: a TV series, a restaurant, even a theme park. They said no to all until Bourne came along with his indefinable, musically driven concept, which felt right because the creative team had originally discussed making "Scissorhands" a musical.

"Tim [Burton] and I were afraid from the start that people wouldn't accept the surreality" of Edward's character, said Caroline Thompson, the film's screenwriter. "Then we dumped that idea. But everything is circling around now."

Bourne first discussed his notion with Thompson, whom he met through a mutual friend. The Bethesda native says she loved it immediately.

"I thought it was an obvious and fantastic idea. Actually, Edward is a silent character anyhow. Someone once counted that the number of words he speaks in the movie is 196, which is next to nothing. [That] automatically makes him a great candidate for a work like Matthew's."

Bourne, Thompson and Burton also shared the same feeling for Edward as a sympathetic misfit, a gentle man-child despite his gruesome appearance. If this stage production moves more slowly than other Bourne works, it is also one of his most unashamedly sentimental.

"I like pouring on the agony," Bourne says. "I used to enjoy making people laugh, up to a point, but what I enjoy more is making people cry, and feel something."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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