Cultural anthropologists will tell you that fairy tales are filled with wicked stepmothers and abandoned children because stepmothers and orphans were an unpleasant fact of life in earlier centuries. Scratch a psychologist and they'll tell you that the motifs are really about archetypes of abandonment and bad parenting -- that many children feel bereft even without concrete losses, especially kids coming from rotten homes. Just ask a homeless teenager from a middle-class family.
But scratch choreographer Matthew Bourne, director of the high-low-brow Dickens-meets-Busby-Berkeley Nutcracker! coming to Berkeley for its US premiere, and you find a British guy who isn't content to take our fairy tales at face value. In fact, he likes to turn them upside down. He's the man who brought us swans in drag in Swan Lake with Prince Siegfried trapped in an especially sticky Oedipal complex, and Car Man, a dance play about an American city called Harmony where passion, brutality, sexual betrayal, and murder are de rigueur.
Bourne, whose 1992 Nutcracker! opens this Friday (8 p.m.) at Zellerbach Hall for a two-week run (CalPerfs.berkeley.edu), catapulted to choreographic renown with the tired old story about a nutcracker doll. Not content to retread the tale, Bourne transformed it with a bit of Oliver Twist, a touch of Holiday on Ice, a whiff of John Waters' camp extravagance, and movie references galore, including Frankenstein and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
In fact, there may be no other English-speaking choreographer as bathed in Hollywoodisms as Bourne, and even his choreographic enterprise, New Adventures, sounds like an indie film company. But this is a dancemaker who also loves the craft of musicals, and that hurdy-gurdy vitality gives his work a muscular, earthy appeal.
"I first saw Nutcracker! at Sadler's Wells in 1995," remembers Allan Ulrich, the former lead music and dance critic for the San Francisco Examiner, now an editor at Dance Magazine and online critic for Voice of Dance. "I was knocked by its cheeky theatrical invention, deep understanding of the Tchaikovsky score, and his manner of bringing contemporary zest to a traditional cultural event." And if you think a Brit is too far away to keep us abreast of his work, Ulrich reminds us that only the West Coast has staged all four of Bourne's big productions. Maybe we understand camp a whole lot better than the folks in the red states.
While most Nutcrackers center on the early-19th-century Prussian Stahlbaum family and a strange toymaker godfather named Drosselmeyer, Bourne launches his tale in a crooked-looking orphanage, where poor Clara pines for a bit of beauty in her life. The asylum's directors are the vile Dr. and Mrs. Dross, while their two spoiled children, Fritz and Sugar, loom like young creeps out of a Roald Dahl tale. The Christmas tree is dead, and after the inspectors leave, the Drosses are base enough to steal the presents intended for the orphans. Nutcracker, in the end, is one of Clara's beloved fellow orphans, not a doll at all, and Christmas morning Clara, her sweetheart, and the rest of the kids lead a revolt and escape, journeying through Sweetieland, chock-full of Marshmallow Girls, Cupids, Gobstoppers, and Licorice Allsorts. It is a sexually suggestive, hilariously camp paradise, a place where kids happily, and rather painlessly, come of age.
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