This picture of Dorian Gray is a photograph taken during a homoerotic fashion shoot in a world of 21st century narcissism. It might not be as Oscar Wilde imagined it, not least because no words are spoken, but Matthew Bourne’s choreographed adaptation of the famous gothic story seems even more appropriate to our self-regarding society than to the dandyish days of 1891. Premiering in the Edinburgh Intl. Festival before a major U.K. tour, “Dorian Gray” is a slick, chic crowd-pleaser — as skin-deep as the culture it satirizes.
Having scored popular hits with his Tony-winning all-male “Swan Lake,” his Bizet adaptation “The Car Man” and his stage version of “Edward Scissorhands,” Bourne has applied his own brand of narrative dance to Wilde’s story of the man who stays forever youthful while the portrait in the attic ages with every dissolute act he commits.
Wilde, of course, knew more than most about the power of public image. A decade before he wrote his defining plays, his portrait was being used to sell everything from ice cream to sewing machines thanks to advertisers fascinated by this icon of the aesthetic movement. A century before our own celebrity-obsessed age, Wilde pioneered the art of being famous for being famous.
It’s appropriate, then, that Bourne’s Dorian is a David Beckham look-alike. Dancer Richard Winsor, with his close-cropped hair and rippling torso, is the epitome of modern manhood, at once sensitive and strong, pampered yet athletic. He exists in an urban landscape of preening young men and women, posing for fashion shoots, looking cool in nightclubs, maintaining a life of cocaine-fueled superficiality.
In a design based on an almost continually moving revolve that takes us fluidly from scene to scene, Lez Brotherston realizes this world in the cool monochrome tones of a fashion magazine. The beautiful dancers are kitted out in sharp black suits, making them stand out against the white background of a photographer’s studio. It is here Dorian enjoys a seductive, voyeuristic dance with Basil Hallward (Aaron Sillis), Wilde’s painter turned fashion photographer, whose portrait is used on a giant billboard advertising an aftershave called — what else? — Immortal pour homme.
Dorian makes his hedonistic way through a decadent society, appearing on vacuous TV chat shows and enjoying relationships with both sexes before growing murderously bored with his conquests. Meanwhile, the advertisement grows wind-battered and torn, the eyes gouged out and streaming with blood.
Slowly, the specter of mortality looms: a mirror-ball skull inspired by artist Damien Hirst hangs over a nightclub, and Dorian’s collection of modern art expands to include morbid work by Francis Bacon and Andy Warhol. Rather than stab the painting, as he does in the original story, Gray smothers a doppelganger figure (an identically dressed Jared Hageman), thereby ending his own soulless life. In a grimly ironic coda, Bourne brings on the paparazzi to photograph the corpse.
All this is communicated wordlessly, using a tremendously economical choreographic style and a superb score by Terry Davies that ranges from pulsating techno beats to classical piano arrangements.
Although there are plenty of enjoyable dance sequences, this is not a show about bravura solos or spectacular set pieces. Instead, Bourne’s emphasis is on the streamlined telling of the tale, a difficult task that he makes look effortless. But the efficient staging offers little more emotional range than the superficial characters themselves, leaving us with a production that is bright, brisk and accomplished — and a fraction too smooth.