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A CurtainUp LA Review
The Car Man
by Laura Hitchcock

Matthew Bourne's dance drama The Car Man: An Auto-Erotic Thriller revs up to steam heat in its American premiere at The Ahmanson Theatre. It's not as original as his Swan Lake or as complex as his Cinderella, but it is breathtaking in its intensity, pacing and the high energy level of Bourne's superbly honed dance troupe.

The Ahmanson, under Artistic Director/Producer Gordon Davidson, helped develop and presented the American premieres of Swan Lake and Cinderella. In The Car Man, Bourne, who calls Los Angeles his second home, has written his first work set on American soil. Though inspired by and set to music from Bizet's Carmen, incorporated into Terry Davies and Rodion Shchedrin's Carmen Suite, images are also drawn from The Postman Always Rings Twice and A Streetcar Named Desire. There's also a strong whiff of Tennessee Williams' earlier play, Orpheus Descending.

Set in a small mid-West town called Harmony in the mid-1960s, the focus is on sexual obsession. Bourne catches the feel of a small town exploding with raging hormones and no distractions.

The mechanics at Dino's Garage and the waitresses at Dino's Café express themselves by hip-pumping and hip-twitching respectively. The boys' alternative sport is tormenting more sensitive souls. Into this charged atmosphere strolls Luca, a drifter. Employed by Dino at his garage, Luca is a dancing phallus. He not only seduces Dino's wife, Lana, but also has a one-night stand with Angelo, the gentle boyfriend of Dino's sister Rita, who is the butt of merciless hazing by the town studs until Luca rescues him. The hitherto repressed homosexuality of Luca and Angelo and Dino's jealousy of his wife's fascination with Luca build through a climate of romantic obsession to violence, murder, betrayal and tragedy.

The choreography is uneven. The lifts are stunning but the mechanics' repetitive hip-pumping gets tiresome. The first encounter between Luca and Lana, though both are fully clothed and dancing, is more daring and erotic than anything on The Playboy Channel and the corps de ballet echoes them in a primordial pattern. Angelo and Rita have a gentle graceful pas de deux, in which their curved arms sway like willow trees.

Neither of the women come off very well. Rita lies to Angelo about Luca's involvement in Dino's murder, thus precipitating Angelo's vengence. Lana's ultimate shooting is murky in motivation. Angelo and Luca feel like innocents, manipulated by the women.

This sub-text is about as deep as the story gets but the dance gets away with its simple story because of the time, the place and the single-minded eroticism. If passion doesn't hold still long enough for emotional depth, it flares and strikes like the vivid colors in Bizet's music and Lez Brotherston's production design. The cars that rim the set of Dino's garage are bright, fast, colorful and induce an illusion of freedom in a town that nobody ever leaves.

Bourne supplements Bizet with sound effects organic to his setting. His overture is revving motors that seem to come from the back of the theatre. He heralds his party scene with the ominous buzz of crickets and mosquitos. Castenets are the prelude to the ferocious mutual seduction between Luca and Lana.

Each role is covered by four dancers. Because of the national disaster on September 11th there was no formal premiere. At the performance viewed, Arthur Pita danced Angelo. His lack of physical beauty was welcome, giving a sense of an everyman normalcy to the character, but there was nothing mundane about his dancing. Beautiful Vicky Evans gave Lana the look of a 1950s film siren. Think Dorothy Malone or Lana Turner without producer Ross Hunter's gloss. In addition to her dance control, Evans brings a poignancy and frustration to her character that makes it work. Alan Vincent is big for a dancer and he actually has love handles but he knows this man 's psyche. Luca has the most facets of any of the characters and Vincent brings him stunningly to life, in movement and character. A particular gift of this production is that you care about the people. Benjamin Pope conducted the orchestra dazzlingly

Director/Choreographer: Matthew Bourne
Principles in Performance Viewed: Neil Pennington (Dino); Vicky Evans (Lana); Etta Murfitt (Rita); Arthur Pita (Angelo); Alan Vincent (Luca). Mechanics and Friends: Paulo Kadow, Rachel Lancaster, Stephen Berkeley-White, Belinda Lee Chapman, Adam Galbraith, Nina Goldman, Kevin Muscat, Nanette Kincaid, Richard Winsor, Shelby Williams, Lee Smikle, Darren J. Fawthrop
Conductor: Benjamin Pope
Designed by Lez Brotherston
Music by Terry Davies & Rodion Shchedrin's Carmen Sutie after Bizet's Carmen
Lighting by Chris Davey
Sound Design: Matt McKenzie/Autograph
Associate Directors: Scott Ambler & Etta Murfitt
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
The Ahmanson Theatre, L. A. Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 628-2772
From Sept. 13-Oct. 28, 2001
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on Sept. 20.

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