AMP (Adventures in Motion Pictures)

"Car Man"

Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA

November 6, 2001
By Mary Ellen Hunt

Matthew Bourne's new Car Man which Adventures in Motion Pictures played for nearly a week at Cal Performances' Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, has some down-and-dirty shock-value. It's a scandal; it's several scandals, in no particular order: sex, orgiastic mayhem, murder and gore. But secretly, isn't this tawdry story just the kind of thing you love to watch? One can imagine lurking in the balcony with a giant vat of popcorn, tossing back handfuls as you stare in rapt attention to the unfolding drama. And the dancers relish telling the story. At the Saturday matinee, there was no afternoon malaise as there can be with other ballets. The cast was led by Alan Vincent as the predatory drifter, Luca, with Saranne Curtin as Lana, his adulterous co-conspirator and Will Kemp as the hapless rube, Angelo, who takes the rap for Luca and Lana and if it sounds slightly confusing already, don't worry, it's more complicated than that.

Bourne is one of those talented choreographers, like Mark Morris, who, in his own inimitable way, can elevate modern pop-culture above the merely kitschy and cross into areas formerly reserved for "high art" using a sly wickedness to shock the audience. Writers, and composers have been at this for centuries, of course. Long before Jerry Springer, grand opera and Shakespearean drama relied on the secret guilty pleasure of watching Naughty People Do Bad Things. In fact, Georges Bizet's own "Carmen" was considered immoral and rather sensational when it premiered in 1875 to not exactly universal acclaim.

The curtain goes up on a scene that fills the eye with the clutter and distraction of a busy auto shop in the ironically-named town, Harmony (pop. 375). Throughout the evening, it becomes clearer and clearer how well the sets and props are thought out and how carefully they are integrated into the choreography, and it's startling to realize what a difference this makes to a production. No small Thuringian thatched cottage fronts or awkward Italian village squares here. In a time of low-budget, stripped-down dance shows it's a rare luxury to see this much effort put into sets, costumes and lighting, so it's a relief to know that something in the "dance" category can rate good production.

After a brief wordless prologue, the familiar music from Bizet's Carmen begins with a flurry. At first the Spanish flavor of the music seems slightly jarring, out of place with this pseudo-American, small-town setting with its faintly Italian cast of characters. However, the drama of Rodion Shchedrin's imaginative arrangement of the music soon takes over and the sheer zest of the dancers allows one to settle in for a ride. Much of Car Man is performed with more gusto than finesse, but in fact, a large part of what is so attractive about this company is the energy and investment of the dancers. That and the attention to the dramatic details.

In several interviews, Bourne mentioned that every member of the company has taken great care to work on the nuances of their characters and it shows. When Luca rolls into town and slinks into the diner to order some chow, he tosses aside his menu. It hit one of the other dancers by accident on Saturday and he reacted with perfect outrage, even though he was far to the back and behind so many people that it might not have mattered. But it did matter. I saw it, and he knew someone would. This is the way they all dance: with a purpose. Bourne has said, "The thing about a play is that at least you can read it. What we don't want is a lot of mindless jumps and turns for no reason. The dance must come out of the setting. Then it's not hard to put passion into movement."

Among many fine performances, as Luca, Alan Vincent seethed with feline grace and his small throwaway glances were slyly calculating. The complicated partnering work between Luca, Angelo and Lana in a sort of post-coital haze was impeccably timed, but it was the clear contrast of characters that made it fun to watch. As Angelo, Kemp was suitably shy at first, but gave a tremendously heartrending performance that gathered momentum as the story unfolded. Then too, Curtin's imperiously sexy Lana and Emily Piercy's earnest Rita added dimension to the drama.

Car Man is less a "ballet" and more a good evening's entertainment: great music, fervid acting and some terrific dancers going for broke. Some may quibble with the melodrama, the amount of handsome flesh on display, the gushing blood and the over-the-top style, but in the end, in secret, it's definitely enormous fun.


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Edited by Marie.

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