Saranne Curtin and Alan Vincent in Play Without Words(Photo © Sheila Burnet)
Saranne Curtin and Alan Vincent in Play Without Words
(Photo © Sheila Burnet)
The name of Matthew Bourne's first company, Adventures in Motion Pictures (which folded in a bankruptcy case too complicated to outline here), was a bit of whimsy. The man headed a dance company, not a movie studio. But now that he's regrouped his ensemble under the title New Adventures, Bourne has ironically based his initial venture on a motion picture.

He first pursued the notion when Trevor Nunn offered him a slot in Londn's National Theatre schedule to present something experimental. The choreographer-director makes a habit in his work of intrepidly crossing established bournes; now he has adapted Joseph Losey's 1963 film The Servant, with its typically creepy Harold Pinter script, into a theater piece that he says should be categorized as dance only because it requires dancers to execute it. In reimagining The Servant (from Robin Maugham's novel) as Play Without Words, he hews to the title's promise while telling the story of a manservant who slowly corrupts his employer, an upper-class dilettante ripe for corrupting.

The only time that voices are heard in the brooding piece is when the scheming Prentice (Pinter called him Barrett) watches a film noir on the television in his cramped quarters. The interpolated scrap of soundtrack is Bourne's sly way of stressing one of his underlying influences; throughout the danced play, he and his longtime set and costume designer Lez Brotherston blend the moral ambivalence of film noir with the look of the moody black-and-white movies that English directors offered during the '60s before they took themselves and their reputations to Hollywood. Into the mix, Bourne and Brotherston have thrown the sour nostalgia of newspaper photographs that proliferated during the 1963 scandal caused when the philandering Tory politician John Profumo fell under Christine Keeler's fast-girl spell.

The immediate impact of Play Without Words -- which has a torchy jazz score by Terry Davies that sounds more '50s than '60s -- comes from Bourne's decision to have three sinuous, poker-faced dancers appear in each of the central roles. As Prentice, there's Scott Ambler, Steve Kirkham, and Eddie Nixon; as employer Anthony, there's Sam Archer, Ewan Wardrop, and Richard Winsor; as Anthony's perplexed fiancée, Glenda, there's Michela Meazza, Anjali Mehra, and Emily Piercy. Maxine Fone and Valentina Formenti appear as Sheila, a maid whom Prentice brings into the household for extracurricular duties. Sometimes, the dancers fully synchronize their movements; other times, they perform different but similar movements.

Scrupulously careful about establishing where focus has to be, Bourne continuously hints at various possibilities for the characters' behaviors; he introduces a variety of subtle feelings while letting the audience members know that it's okay if their eyes merely wander over the panorama. At the same time, there's a possible interpretation of the piece that Bourne hasn't mentioned in his recent interviews. It could be that he's not just dealing with one set of characters in and around one Chelsea townhouse and several seedier London locales; perhaps he's showing us three distinct figures, the point being that all over London during the era that he's considering, people are enduring interchangeable, emotionally stunted lives. He may be implying that the class struggle metaphorically acted out in Play Without Words infected all of England in the years after the angry young men started venting their fury and before London began swinging to The Beatles' tunes.

As Anthony succumbs to Prentice's and Sheila's wiles while simultaneously alienating Glenda, and as Prentice reveals his sexual ambivalence at a pick-up bar, Bourne creates a series of mesmerizing dance -- er, movement -- sequences. He makes it clear that Play Without Words is not solely about class politics, it's also about heteroerotic and homoerotic sexual politics. The wittiest segment is a comedy routine during which one Anthony is dressed by a Prentice while another Anthony is undressed by another Prentice. The lustiest segment contains two kitchen-table pas de deux for an Anthony and a Sheila. (Though Bourne has taken what he wanted from The Servant and left the rest, including the ludicrous Fellini-esque denouement, he has deliberately lifted one provocative gesture that Sarah Miles makes in the flick.) The most violent give-and-take occurs during and just after the bar encounter wherein each Prentice is knocked about by a hot-headed confederate (Eddie Nixon, Alan Vincent, Ewan Wardrop). Throughout the piece, the dancers perform with sinister grace.

By now, Bourne's preoccupying themes have been fully articulated. He made his name in this country with his highly homoerotic Swan Lake, in which another innocent ripe for the plucking gets his feathers ruffled. Bourne's interest in social context was on display in his Blitz-grounded Cinderella. In both of those pieces as well as in Car Man (his version of Carmen), he makes the observation that barely repressed rage is a prominent element in many sexual encounters. In Play Without Words he interestingly serves as a comparative literature authority by intimating that, in the man-woman-master-servant department, Harold Pinter owes plenty to August Strindberg. Whatever Bourne calls himself as he goes about his business -- choreographer, director, movement coordinator -- there's one other thing that the two-time Tony Award winner (for direction and choreography of Swan Lake) can call himself with no reticence: showman.