Critical Dance


The Artist’s Notebook

 - Backstage Beat -

By Matthew Bourne


The Car Man was my first new show in three years and a lot of people asked me initially, “Why Carmen?”  To be honest, I resisted it for quite a while because there were so many versions of Carmen, both ballet and opera, but I kept listening to the music and the more I listened to it the more I felt that it was the right kind of music for AMP.  I also felt that for us it suggested a different kind of movement than before.  Listening to the Rodion Shchedrin version, which is the short 40-minute ballet version using strings and percussion, got me really excited and I thought we’ve got to do this, we’ve got to use this music.  So I contacted Terry Davies and asked him to compose further music based on Bizet’s Carmen.  There is a substantial amount of great music that Shchedrin did not use in his version and so Terry’s brief was to use this other music, again with strings and percussion, to come up with a full-length score.  With our other shows of recent times, Nutcracker, Highland Fling, Swan Lake and Cinderella, we always worked to an existing score and we made the story fit the score, but this time we were able to work in reverse so that we had a scene and were able to think, “what kind of music do we need for this?” It was such a freeing experience. 

So the music became this very exciting hybrid, and I felt that I didn’t want everyone, including myself, to be thinking, “Oh God, not another Carmen,” when it came to the scenario, so I decided we would tell our own story. That said, there are parallels with the original opera, there are elements of lust, passion, revenge and murder and all those things that are associated with Carmen.  None of our characters can be linked directly to the role of Carmen, but Luca, a stranger who arrives at the beginning of the show, is really our title character because he is a kind of fate figure who affects everyone’s lives and becomes the catalyst for change.

More importantly though, I think the essence of Carmen is there, but we set our production in a different time and a different place.  The Car Man is set in an Italian-American community in a small mid-western American town in the early sixties.  Although it’s set in America, there is quite a European feel to the production. And although there are some obvious American elements, we added a more gritty, European feel and avoided Hollywood glamour.  We watched a fair mix of European and Hollywood films of the period, but I wanted to get away from the glossy look.  We also came up with a name for this fictional town, which is Harmony - it’s also by chance the name of a real town in the States.  This actually becomes increasingly ironic because so many things go wrong in this place.  I was looking for something like Pleasantville that was nice but ironic and suggested a darker side.

The characters that populate this town are very gutsy and real I suppose, which is different for us, and a real departure from the regal Swan Lake and the more period feel of Cinderella, so the movement that came from this was much more earthy and gritty.  Also, the whole structure of The Car Man, in terms of design, is much freer.  There are no wings, the set is in the middle of the stage and you can see people coming and going.  I think this created a feeling of spontaneity and freedom, which is in keeping with the whole dynamic of the show.  With this production, I wanted to create a sense that the performers were protagonists and observers, almost part of the audience who are witnessing this; they are not there but they are witnesses to the action.  In this way, there is a constant sense of the presence of fate as the story unfolds.

In rehearsals I found that it was important to work sequentially as far as possible because it kept everyone focussed on the narrative through-line, which is so important for the thriller element.  Because we are working with such complex characters who never actually speak, it is crucial for me that the performers understand their motivation in order to communicate this fully through the choreography.  In this way, we worked with a lot of exercises that you might normally find in an acting, rather than a dance, studio.  Character interviews, involving the company questioning an individual member of the cast in character, so that all the answers they give are as the character in the first person, helped to flesh out what happens on stage in their minds and helped them find a way into the character.  In this way, none of the characters are black and white, just villains or just good, they all have a background and a past and have sympathetic angles, which we have explored.  We also looked at a number of films, and I asked members of the cast to look at particular film stars and to extract certain mannerisms that they felt might be appropriate to their character.  Really, all of this is leading to the fact that the movement has to be character led; it’s not just movement for movement’s sake, which in turn comes back to my basic desire to tell a good story, and I hope that’s what The Car Man is.

Car Man the Show

- An Auto-Erotic Thriller -

Car Man Talk

- Talk about the show -

Designer: Lena Marie Stuart
US Director: Azlan Ezaddin
UK Director: Stuart Sweeney

All photos copyright 2001 Lara Hartley unless noted otherwise

All contributions as noted in each feature.