Director-choreographer Matthew Bourne calls his company Adventures in Motion Pictures, and the pun is extremely revealing. Heavily influenced by film, Bourne creates ballets saturated with visual cultural reflections and driven by narrative force. “The Car Man” is his third piece to be presented at the Ahmanson (after his masculine “Swan Lake” and WWII-set “Cinderella”), and like its predecessors it reflects Bourne’s effort to push typically rarefied ballet into the popular culture mainstream. This eclectically inspired dance – working class grand opera, high-art film noir – isn’t just accessible and beautiful. It’s as passionate, as involving, as vital as anything else out there.
Bourne hasn’t really “adapted” the story of “Carmen.” “The Car Man” stands very much on its own as an interpretation of the Bizet music (as adapted for a 1960s ballet by composer Rodion Schedrin) and its fundamental thematic drive – the danger of overflowing passion.
In Bourne’s tale, the arrival of a male drifter named Luca (played on the press nights by Alan Vincent – the ensemble switches roles throughout the run), wreaks havoc on the small town of Harmony, an imaginary icon of 1950s America.
The sexy Luca answers a “Man Wanted” posting at the garage, with diner attached, owned by Dino Alfano (Scott Ambler). Dino’s wife Lana (Saranne Curtin) takes notice; it isn’t long before her flirtation with Luca becomes more. And Lana’s not the only one to fall under the spell of Luca’s sexual magnetism.
Wimpish Angelo (Will Kemp), boyfriend to Lana’s sister Rita (Etta Murfitt), relies on Luca to protect him from the torments of the other mechanics, and the men end up in the seat of one of two classic cars that sit stage right.
Production designer Lez Brotherston’s and lighting designer Chris Davey’s evocation of film noir isn’t about forcing the aud to retreat into the cerebral – we don’t sit there thinking, as Dino arrives home while Luca and Lana are there, “Oh, that’s taken from ‘Postman Always Rings Twice.’ ” Rather, with palms sweating and stomachs beginning to churn with suspense, the audience awaits the possible discovery and the inevitable aftermath.
Bourne’s accomplishment is actually to make us forget these layers of visual notalgia – this adventure in motion pictures is of the truly visceral sort.
Subtitled “An Auto-Erotic Thriller,” “The Car Man” does indeed thrill during Act One, all the elements cohering to create an operatic intensity. The storytelling is so concentrated that it feels at every moment on the verge of explosion.
The individual dances in “Car Man” are not only gorgeously expressive, but also gripping because they’re not merely reflections on the events – the dances are the event. Things happen during the dances: Characters change, persuade, seduce, injure.
The choreography – defined by Bourne’s trademark combination of grace and power – is at one with the narrative and the music.
In Act Two, passion gives way to themes of guilt and regret and revenge. And, unfortunately, Bourne does begin to become self-conscious. You can feel him laboring, figuring out where to take the tale next. The images become less a part of the fabric of the story than stray stereotypes (the beats, cowboys and gamblers).
The second act opens at a cabaret with a dance spoof that’s very funny but drifts too far away from the tone of this story. Bourne never quite pulls it all back together, although he still creates individual moments that are startlingly strong – Kemp, phenomenal throughout as the character who undergoes the most dramatic change, dances one number with his arms tied.
“The Car Man” peaks while the tension is still developing – what follows feels intimate but strained.