LOS ANGELES — Matthew Bourne is back doing what he does so well: tinkering with the classics.
Last year on Broadway, he cast men as the white-winged dancers in "Swan Lake," to great acclaim. Now, the British choreographer has relocated the classic tale of "Cinderella" to the dark days of World War II London.
Far from endangering the timeless rags-to-riches story, he has gone to its very heart and given it new life. The show recently made its American premire in Los Angeles.
As Hitler tries to bomb London into submission, the story of the persecuted Cinderella takes on a new urgency. Every decision and every gesture takes on life-changing implications.
Beyond that, as dance critics both here and abroad have noted, Bourne has offered for the first time a ballet that doesn't gloss over the darker themes in the Prokofiev score, but embraces and mines them for all the hints they have to offer about human tragedy and triumph.
The music itself was written during World War II as Russia was fighting for its survival. It works well for the dance to be anchored in a real time and place rather than "Once upon a time...."
This is not ballet in the classic sense. Dancers leap from social to folk to pantomime styles, and even utter an occasional phrase, using natural movements and glances throughout. The ballet seems more like a highly charged silent movie than anything associated with tutus and pointe shoes, both notably absent here.
While ballet purists have been critical of this raiding of various movement traditions, others in the theatrical community have welcomed Bourne's vision with enthusiasm.
"Bourne is transforming classical ballet into a form of modern theater - using ballet to retell classic stories," observes Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles, in a message to Bourne's audience.
"He takes stories that are so familiar that perhaps we no longer truly experience them and makes us see them new.... [He] shows us how these great traditional stories illuminate our life, our world today."
Bourne came late to the dance world and attributes his ability to leap the boundaries of classical ballet to a well-developed interest in art forms beyond the dance studio.
"Sometimes choreographers grow up in the dance world and their world can be so limited," he says. "The best choreographers see a lot of other art forms."
"You need to feed your imagination with many other things besides dance," he says. The former dancer says he is deliberately trying to bring what he calls magical tales into the here and now.
"I try to give them some relevance to a modern audience, where everything is not explained away by magic," he says.
Although he designs ballets to be performed to familiar musical "chestnuts" from the world of ballet, he doesn't see his work as strictly balletic.
"It's very much dance theater," he says. "It appeals to people who wouldn't see dance because it doesn't have all the sorts of things that traditional ballet has."
For instance, he points out that "Cinderella" has no major tour-de-force solos - those ballet conventions designed to showcase the talents of individual performers.
Members of his troupe, "Adventures in Motion Pictures," hail from a range of dance styles, although both lead characters in "Cinderella" come from London's prestigious Royal Ballet.
As a choreographer, Bourne's idea of good dancers is "the ones that can look at movement and make their bodies do it." He points to Mikhail Baryshnikov as a model for the sort of dancer he admires.
He is also quick to point out that he is not anti-classical ballet.
"I think modern ballet or modern works in ballet companies can often reach a wider audience if [the audience] can learn things that will make ballet less alienating," he says.
Ever a man with a mission, his company has been created to address his personal convictions that "a lot of people have decided they don't like dance.... We have to persuade people to come back."
He is clearly making inroads. As one 12-year-old audience member in Los Angeles noted, "It's so much more than just dance. It's theater"
*Gloria Goodale's e-mail address is email@example.com