The trio of pieces of Matthew Bourne’s early work presented at Sadler's Wells is a showcase to the young choreographer’s emerging style. The feeling is one of watching an apprenticeship as Bourne experiments and hones all the future hallmarks of his style. The perfectly timed humour, movement that is so satisfyingly tied to the music that there seems to be no other way the dancers could have moved on that note, the way his cast always seem to be people dancing, rather than dancers doing things unrelated to normal experience. This is, I believe, the key to what has made Bourne’s work so appealing to a vast range of audiences over the years. In all his work, there is an accessible mix of sentiment and wit that envelops the viewer and throws open the door to the dance world, rather than only allowing them to peek in through a keyhole.

<i>The Infernal Galop</i> © Johan Persson
The Infernal Galop
© Johan Persson

The programme began with Watch with Mother from 1991. Not seen for twenty five years, this is a playful work with suggestions of a narrative. The dancers wear school uniforms and dance around old gym equipment, forming distinct characters who all interact, even if not featured in the foreground of the action. This gives the piece a multi dimensional feeling that has its own life and energy. The familiarity of the music, arranged by Percy Grainger, introduces another hallmark of the Bourne style, playing with well known music. This irreverent knocking on the door of the canon has always been a key part of both the humour and the poignancy of his work, and is in full display in all three pieces.

The next piece on the programme was Town and Country, also from 1991. Here, Bourne explores the life of this small rocky island with a typically English sense of humour; bawdy and self deprecating. Again, this work is all the more engaging because of the tiny quirks of character that each dancer on the stage enthusiastically creates. These are the little details that make his full length ballets so multi dimensional, giving us the feeling as we watch that we are dropping into a living, breathing world that will continue after the curtain has dropped.

Edwin Ray and Paris Fitzpatrick in <i>Town and Country</i> © Johan Persson
Edwin Ray and Paris Fitzpatrick in Town and Country
© Johan Persson
There are small fragmentary stories within this work, like two aristocrats being bathed and dressed by their servants, a comic precis of Brief Encounter and a tongue in cheek homage to Frederick Ashton with a clog dance, complete with hilarious puppetry. I particularly enjoyed the section danced to the sea shanty Shallow Brown, which struck an beautifully elegiac and wistful note in an otherwise upbeat performance.

The final piece of the evening was The Infernal Galop from 1989, providing Bourne with the opportunity to turn his comic attentions towards Frenchness; or, a prudish English assessment of it. This work offers Bourne the chance to experiment with the stylish and witty sensuality that he was to explore later in his three act ballets, like The Car Man. He uses the the songs of Charles Trenet and Edith Piaf to portray our cousins as uncontrollably emotional in their love affairs and unable to laugh at their own jokes as the cast perform a finale of a can-can with that stereotypically Gallic deadpan face.

Each of the ensemble of nine dancers were exuberant in all three works, dancing in perfect harmony yet also bringing their individuality to their roles. They looked exuberant in every single section, as though they were having the time of their lives.

<i>The Infernal Galop</i> © Johan Persson
The Infernal Galop
© Johan Persson

Despite the success of this programme, and the chance to see some lovely work that is not often revived, I was left with an impression that I was seeing the fruits of an imagination yearning for more, of a choreographer itching to get his hands on a bigger story and tell it his own way.

****1