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Last year’s big contemporary ballet première at the International Festival was Mathew Bourne’s fun adaptation of Dorian Gray. This year Scotland’s own Michael Clark presents New Work.
I think it’s fair to say that Clark doesn’t have the same narrative flare as Bourne. Rather than follow one single story, New Work‘s unrelated pieces take inspiration from glam rock, the 1970s and Clark’s personal history.
I haven’t seen much contemporary dance, and to my inexperienced eyes the first piece ‘SWAMP’ seemed a little slow and occasionally bumpy. Several dancers broke long poses to plant a foot and start again. It was the first night, so this may have just been jitters, but the disjointed choreography can’t have helped. I suspect that perhaps as an uncommonly talented dancer Clark placed too high expectations on his company.
The second piece ‘come, been and gone’ contained both the best and worst moments of the evening. Sequences put to David Bowie were explosively rhythmic and exciting to watch, particularly towards the end from when ‘Aladdin Sane’ began. The solo set to The Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin’ was embarrassingly literal. I don’t see a problem with Clark exploring his history of addiction through dance, but trussing up a ballerina in a nude body-suit punctured all over with hypodermic needles and getting her to roll about on the floor is another thing all together. Cringe worthy. I suppose at a stretch you could see her as a skewered Saint Sebastian, but the flopping about of the foam needles set my teeth on edge.
Aside from the heroin body-suit the costumes were quite nice; most had a Pam Hogg feel, although there were a few too many silly arm and leg-warmers tacked on in the first piece.
From where I was sitting the performance didn’t seem to go down too well the audience. I started a conversation at intermission with a nice couple next to me who wanted to know if they were missing something. They too had seen Dorian Gray last year and were a bit confused by the wobbles and the slowness of the first half.
Reading The Scotsman over breakfast on Wednesday morning I noticed a report on a new craze sweeping Scottish university campuses – drinking (or imbibing I suppose) vodka by pouring a shot straight into one’s eyeball to allow alcohol to enter the blood stream directly through the capillaries of the eye. The possible side effect? Permanent blindness.
Welcome to Scotland.
Later that morning I went over to the National Museum in the old town, a large new building between the University of Edinburgh Old College and Greyfriars Kirkyard. The museum has many interesting exhibits on early Scottish, royal and military history, but what I found most amusing were the upper floors, devoted to the place of Scotland in the modern world.
Various exhibits cover everything from Scottish inventions to Scottish airlines and covering the careers of any famous people who were born in Scotland, lived in Scotland, visited Scotland, or even had the vaguest fondness for tartan.
One of the funniest displays was a case displaying a pink women’s suit – caption reads:
Suit. Paris, 1931. Fabric may have been sourced from one of Scotland’s many wool mills.
The one thing not glossed over with lashings of Scottish pride were the rather depressing health statistics for the country. In some areas of Scotland average life expectancy is as low as 57 for men and 59 for women. Even for the overall population life expectancy figures are some of the lowest in Europe. The exhibit attributed this to the high incidence of smoking, poor diet and alcohol abuse (through the eyeballs too now).
Self destruction seemed to be theme of the day, as that night I trotted off to see Matthew Bourne’s new ballet, Matthew Bourne’s Dorian Gray (Bourne’s branding of his own name is very comprehensive) based very loosely on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. I was excited to see it having heard about Bourne’s version of Swan Lake with all male swans (and hadn’t made the mental connection that he was also responsible for the ridiculous looking dance adaptation of the film Edward Scissorhands that toured to the Sydney Opera House in May).
This year I’ve seen my fair share of very well intentioned, but nonetheless awkward and unsatisfying dance. Dorian Gray was the opposite. Brilliant dance based on a slightly dull concept. That might not be entirely fair. Wilde’s novel is potentially a great inspiration for dance, but the way it was translated by Bourne into a story about the faults of hedonistic celebrity culture was a bit disappointing. In this ballet Dorian is scouted by a photographer to become the face of a new fragrance “Immortal”. Sex, drugs and ballet follow.
I happened to be seated in a cheap seat at the back of the stalls behind a group of high school students. I don’t think I’ve ever actually heard school-girls titter before, but some of the more adult content of the ballet seemed to be a bit much for them at times. Otherwise they seemed well behaved. At interval their teacher came over and asked for their opinions.
“I dunno miss. But we’re liking the fit bodies.”
Never in my day. Anyway, the teacher did discuss with the students a problem with the ballet that I had also been thinking about: the essential gothic image of the novel is the eerie contrast between the eternally youthful Dorian and the rapidly decaying portrait – and this is barely represented in the ballet at all. Dancing Dorian’s poster image promoting the fragrance is clearly the equivalent of the portrait in the novel (and this is displayed towards the end of the ballet covered in graffiti) but ‘handsome man goes on a drug binge and kills some people’ seems to be a slightly different story. Although it’s certainly a story people like to tell.
That said, the choreography was spectacular. And beauty is the point. Right?
Matthew Bourne’s Dorian Gray