A night at the ballet

Saturday night involved something a little different from the usual (bottle of red, DVD, pile of kittens); Em and I drove to Plymouth to see Matthew Bourne’s new ballet, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s infamous The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is one of Em’s favourite books.

I’d be lying if I said I knew anything about ballet, but I gather from Em (and Google) that Matthew Bourne is quite the man when it comes to bringing ballet to a modern audience while still retaining favour from the classicists; his Swan Lake, with male swans, is the one depicted at the finale of Billy Elliot for example. His last new production before this was an adaptation of Edward Scissorhands. Having seen Dorian Gray, I now want to see that, too.

Because, frankly, it was pretty awesome; I’ve not read it either, but I’m assuming Bourne’s interpretation takes its lead from Will Self’s recent literary adaptation (simply titled Dorian) by contextualising the vain, beauteous, sexually ambiguous (or, in this case, ravenously bisexual) anti-hero / monster / poor little misplaced boy with a magical visage, in the world of the 80s fashion industry. Cue (balletic) homosexual romps with rock-star-attired photographers, five-in-a-bed orgies, cocaine, and the ‘picture’ being a perfume advert (“Immortal pour homme”). Oh, and a little (heterosexual) rape too. And some murders, gotta have the murders.

So Dorian is a lackey at a media company who finds himself spotted by a lusty photographer and then thrust into the limelight, his lusciously sharp visage plastered everywhere, his every whim not just catered for and indulged but sodden with satiation. There was an amusing sequence where he guested on a thinly-veiled Jonathan Ross Show; laughs was not something I was expecting from ballet.

Neither was a sense of spontaneity, which Bourne’s choreography, and his excellent company, managed to imbue the performance with. Clearly tightly blocked and rehearsed (I know how tightly stage-managed walking and talking is, and can barely imagine how much further choreography for something like this must go), perhaps it was the (live) music that added a sense of improvised unpredictability to proceedings – I guess I’d expected something vaguely classical in nature, but what I got was a thumping 80s/00s rock/dance/avant soundtrack that had more in common with Battles or Underworld than Tchaikovsky.

I also didn’t expect a giant disco-ball in the shape of a skull, a vicious bathtub murder, a lead who had a touch of the Justin Timberlake about him (particularly when suited and leading a non-more-pop dance routine in the second act), or overtones of American Psycho (either book or film). Which made me think; is Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman a Dorian-esque figure, fastidiously maintaining his appearance while part of him decays into bloody fantasy out of sight? Is Batman? Certainly readings of Batman & Robin’s relationship as homoerotic are well established now…

One thing that Em commented on, though, was that the homosexuality depicted in Dorian Gray was defiantly heterosexual in nature – positions assumed by the dancers did not insinuate anal sex but rather a more missionary familiarity, which was interesting. For all the camp cache of ballet (I’m reminded of Bale-as-Batman quipping “oh, so you’re into ballet” as a slight against Harvey Dent’s masculinity early in The Dark Knight) it’s actually a very masculine, testosterone-scented phenomenon – there’s nothing effeminate about the strength and discipline demonstrated by the male dancers.

An interesting article in The Times sees Bourne comparing the late Heath Ledger with his own Dorian; a nervy young man thrust into a celebrity world, with a million people trying to help him adjust, help him get through it. Bourne’s Dorian, though, merely finds himself replaced by a younger model, despite his murderous attempts to stay at the top of the beauty game. Ledger had, with films like Candy and Brokeback Mountain, stepped towards the edges of the circle of celebrity, on his way to being an actor rather than a star. But he still ended up dead.

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