Purists insist that a classic should be scrupulously respected, not toyed with. Others, however, believe that a true classic can be subjected to any number of reinterpretations, modernizations, and adaptations without losing its revered status.
It is clear on which side of this divide the heralded English choreographer-director Matthew Bourne stands. Audience appeal and contemporary relevance drive his work. Above all, he is in the business of telling stories - by means of movement and in response to great music - particularly to people with no previous experience of ballet or liking for it. This is far more important to him than the continuation of frozen-in-time balletic traditions.
Over the last decade and a half, Mr. Bourne has virtually reinvented some of the sacred cows of the classical ballet repertoire: "La Sylphide," "Swan Lake," and "The Nutcracker" on his own markedly accessible terms. He's aware, perhaps, that these works were probably never as "sacred" as purists would like to suppose, and he has invested them with a funny, sexy, surprising, mischievous, and even dangerous freshness. He has also discovered in them, and their musical scores, unsuspected and compelling story lines.
Although he has retained the title of "Swan Lake" (while radically altering the narrative), the other two have become "Nutcracker!" and "Highland Fling." They are, as it were, "Bourne again."
Some critics argue he has made these old favorites into "dancicals" - closer to Rodgers and Hammerstein or Bernstein than to Bournonville or even Balanchine. Bourne is absolutely open about his liking for musicals. He has, in fact, choreographed a few, among them the 1990s revival of "Oliver!" and the current London production of "Mary Poppins," the film musical he has loved since childhood. As dance critic Mary Brennan puts it, Bourne is "hugely unstuffy."
His variations on old ballet themes, however drastic, remain acutely aware of their origins. Bourne's response to Tchaikovsky's scores, which he admires greatly, is original and vividly felt. He references his chosen ballets continually, while also referencing Busby Berkeley, Fred and Ginger, Frederick Ashton's choreography, Disney's retelling of fairy stories, and even turning - when he needs to - to such diverse interests as Hitchcock's films, Dickens's novels, or Shakespeare.
"Nutcracker!" starts in an "Oliver Twist" type of orphanage. His "Swan Lake" seems closer to the Oedipal entanglements of "Hamlet" (a forceful queen of elusive morality; an overshadowed prince aching to be loved) than to the usual beautiful, magical, swanny tale of good and evil, of Odette and Odile. Bourne's all-male swans, proudly masculine and rather sinister, owe something to Hitchcock's "The Birds."
The program for "Highland Fling," currently touring Britain before going to Japan, describes it as "loosely based" on Danish choreographer August Bournonville's "La Sylphide." Bourne's version certainly isn't delicately pointed and prettily fey. It is closer, perhaps, to the film "Trainspotting." But the druggy hallucinations of the main character, James (an out-of-work Glasgow welder), who falls, with shockingly fatal results, for a mischievous, living-dead, Goth-style sylph, are, in fact, not so incredibly far from one facet of the darkly haunted 19th-century Romantic imagination - even if it was induced by Ecstasy pills rather than opium. Bourne updates the myth.
So perhaps the myths on which classical ballets were based were not, after all, as sweet as balletomanes might like to think - and, in fact, might be absolutely relevant to today.
Mary Brennan describes Bourne as "very aware of the underbelly and the wild side to a lot of these myths." He alters the mists and purple heather of "La Sylphide's" enchanted rural dwelling for traditionally ethereal ballerina-sylphs (harking back prettily to Marie Taglioni on pointe), into a littered wasteland on the city's outskirts inhabited by a feral gang of male and female "sylphs" with cannibalistic tendencies and a ghoulish netherworldishness. Then, typical of his appealingly childlike humor, this dangerous wild side is tempered daftly by a hand puppet rabbit on a garbage can, and toy birds and other animals perched in the trees of this so-called forest glade. All told, it is, as its subtitle has it, "A Romantic Wee Ballet."
Ms. Brennan says what is wonderful about 'Highland Fling' is that Bourne "revisits the whole idea of Romantic ballet." This is not nostalgia, clearly. But it also may not be simple modernization. It is more a matter of bringing that past into the present in order to revalue it.
Bourne's initial re-creations of these classical ballets in the early to mid 1990s challenged staid conceptions of the classical ballet tradition. But his challenge has not stopped there. Since 2002 he has revisited his own versions of these ballets, and they have been substantially rethought, re-choreographed, and redesigned. "Highland Fling" now, for example, has a team of 15 dancers rather the original seven; things have grown. This indicates his distaste for his works getting stuck in an unalterable form. They need to grow and change just as the whole tradition of ballet does. Standing still, when it comes to dance, is a contradiction in terms.
His dancers also tell of the way in which Bourne actively encourages their individual characterizations (within the necessary constraints of the steps). In "Highland Fling," each role is shared among several dancers. Each brings his or her own interpretation to bear, so a production may vary noticeably from night to night. Also, Bourne's ballets evolve, according to Etta Murfitt, associate director of Bourne's company, New Adventures, and one of its longstanding dancers (she dances Clara in "Nutcracker!" with astonishing charm and brightness). She explained in an after-performance question-and-answer session, "If you see 'Highland Fling' in a week's time, you will see a different performance from the one you saw tonight."
This approach is completely at odds with the idea of a classical ballet as set in perpetuity, with classically trained dancers expected to be perfect clones of earlier dancers or even of each other on stage.
For Bourne, it seems that choreography is not rigid, but the steps are instead more like text in a play, and his dancers more like actors who can vary emphasis, suggest inner meanings, alter inflections, contain or release different emotions - but still with complete regard for the author's words or the choreographer's moves.
Bourne's anticlassicism in such respects has at times left him open to criticism for being more of a dramatist than a choreographer. He definitely requires his dancers to be actors in order to convey his stories with clarity. But (so far) words have not been part of his work.
Movement in response to music, in his hands, can sometimes touch tender, inexpressible feelings where words would fail. His "Play Without Words," currently playing in Los Angeles and going to Moscow in June, suggests that theater is as much his territory as dance. But his remarkable inventiveness in dance is hard to deny. The point is, as Mary Brennan notes with approval, he is "not tunnel-visioned in one art form." And why should he be?