An extra post today because I loved last night’s performance of The Car Man so much and its run at the Albert Hall ends of Sunday and I want people to go and see it.


This week I’ve been to see two narrative dance performance ie performances where the dance is used to tell a story, rather than just to be pretty. The first was The Crucible by Scottish Ballet and the second was The Car Man by Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures. I found it interesting to compare the two.

The Crucible used a generally traditional ballet approach: lots of point work, great technical skill from the company. There were more modern dance sequences as well but the overall approach was technically mainstream. However, they decided not to use traditional mime, but to carry the narrative by developing the relationships of the characters through the extension of naturalistic actions into ballet forms. For example, as the programme helpfully explains, “ If [the choreographer] wanted to work with gestures that truly showed intimacy, a caress of John’s hand on the side of Elizabeth’s thigh might then carry up to an arabesque.” Even if you believe that 55% of communication is non-verbal (almost certainly a gross over-estimate) that still leaves the audience losing 45% of the plot. You have to watch with close attention, interpreting clues as if you are solving a non-verbal Times crossword. The synopsis provided in the programme is essential if you are to have any idea what is going on.

We saw The Crucible at Sadler’s Wells, a theatre that has no really bad seats, but we were towards the back of the stalls. The stage is under-lit (the gloom is deliberate and certainly adds to the sense of menace) and simply seeing the details of expression (essential given that the big gestures of mime are deliberately not used) was a strain. (It literally gave me a headache.)

The costumes are excellent but the minimalist scenery adds little to help carry a complex narrative. When one character, according to the synopsis, “flees Salem” she simply travels from one side of the stage to the other before vanishing into the wings, the only clue that she is leaving the village being the canvas bag she carries which presumably contains all her belongings.

That just leaves the music to draw the audience in and carry them along. Peter Salem’s score (nominative determinism gone mad here), the programme notes tell us, “draws on 17th century psalms, and evocative sounds such as the courtroom gavel or a church bell but also embraces the electro beat of rave music which heightens the repressed sexuality of the teenage girls.” It is fair to say that it is not a high-energy audience pleaser.

The Crucible may not have been a particularly fun night out but critics loved it, in part, I suspect, because it takes on the challenge of telling a complex story through dance and surely that must make considerable demands of its audience.

And so to Exhibit Two: The Car Man.

Matthew Bourne is committed to telling stories through dance. Many of his works pay homage to cinema (most notably The Red Shoes, which is a re-telling of the famous film). His work seeks to tell stories, sometimes complex stories, in an accessible way. So how does he do it?

In the Albert Hall production we saw last night, the huge performance area is inhabited by the boys and girls of Harmony (we know it’s called Harmony because there’s a huge town sign telling us it is) as they gather around the diner. The set is beautiful and it tells us a lot before the dance even starts. We’re in America, probably the mid-West, and it’s the late fifties or early sixties. The style of the diner and the clothes (costumes are brilliant) tells us that. (Later we learn it’s 1957, but you’d have to pay attention to pick that up.)

The music starts. It’s a rearrangement of Bizet’s Carmen and the powerful rhythm pulls you immediately into the action as the young people start with a performance that gives more than a nod to West Side Story. It’s bright and cheerful, well-lit and upbeat. Even in the vastness of the Albert Hall it’s easy to watch. (It goes without saying that, this being New Adventures, the quality of the dance is stunning.)

The Car Man is not a cheery crowd pleaser. The story, of lust, infidelity, rape and murder ends in tragedy. Harmony, once a peaceful town of happy young people has descended into a hellish place where bare-knuckle boxing and drag racing have replaced the fiestas that used to characterise it. Tough though the story is (and when it was first produced bits were truly shocking) it’s never difficult to watch. Emotionally draining, yes, but in a good way.

Narrative dance can be accessible and entertaining, though Matthew Bourne is one of the very few choreographers still around who can consistently make it work on the scale that he does. But if you can’t make this form work, it’s maybe better to stick with the pretty stuff. Done well, narrative dance is thrilling; done badly, it might impress some critics, but it does audiences no favours and that, ultimately, drives people away from the theatre, which is, I think we can agree, A Bad Thing.

The Albert Hall is seriously big, so there are still seats available for the last few performances. Book at The Car Man | Royal Albert Hall — Royal Albert Hall

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