Supermodels gone Wilde. At first glance there doesn’t seem to be much that would attract a choreographer in The Picture of Dorian Gray, a book that’s not long on action of any kind, or plot for that matter. But plot turns out to be essentially meaningless in Matthew Bourne’s modern dance adaptation, with the title trimmed to Dorian Gray. It premiered last summer at the Edinburgh Festival and has moved to a run at Sadler’s Wells, one of London’s main venues for dance. (I imagine an American tour is in the offing, as with Bourne’s previous spectacles.) What Bourne is after this time out is a display of strenuous sexual liberation. I think I can safely say that no one before him has presented a scenario that contained five gay sex scenes, two of which are carried to the point of embarrassing explicitness. (Other sex scenes, bi and straight, follow suit.)
Is embarrassment a valid response to art, or simply a measure of the viewer’s own prudery? I never thought that was a valid question. Dance has always been about bodies; cavorting in tights isn’t a modest activity. And since the ancient Greeks, one function of the theatre has been to stylize transgressive activity, such as killing your father and marrying your mother. In the work that made him famous, the so-called male Swan Lake (It actually has a complement of women, the male part being given over to the swans, who are bare-chested men with feathered legs.), Bourne brought the gay subtext of classical ballet to the fore, with purifying candor. In his next big splash, an adaptation of Carmen transposed to a diner-gas station in fifties America, which was rather too cutely title Car Man, Bourne continued to give scope to both sexes. Passions were lurid and violent, but they remained on the honorable side of voyeurism. Dorian Gray is almost pure voyeurism, with a crashing techno-pop musical score that would fit in nicely at a buns of steel contest. If you have seen the ads of David Beckham posed in bikini briefs, you’ve seen the costuming of Dorian Gray. It’s almost entirely pre-formed in undies, with brilliant white spotlighting of bulges and clefts. The audience is forced to confront its inner ogler. I must hand it to the mostly young, almost entirely straight couples around me—they seemed nonplussed. The lead dancer, Richard Winsor, spent two hours functioning as sexual magnet and eye candy, but when he took his bows, he seemed like an amiable bloke who had just finished a triathlon.
Insofar as art is about empathy, Dorian Gray asks us to empathize with a hero who wakes up in the morning with no time to pour milk over a bowl of Wheaties because he has an urgent orgy to attend. Tired as he is from the orgy of last night, and the night before, he must struggle with the issue of which ambisexual beautiful people to accept or reject. They all want him, and Dorian’s preening narcissism constitutes most of his gestures. (The sex here is deadly serious, but Bourne gets a good laugh when Dorian wakes up in bed with five assorted lovers. He pushes them out, then peeks under the covers in case there’s one he missed.) The portrait that symbolizes mortality in Wilde’s novel has turned into a giant billboard for a scent called Immortality. Dorian’s appearance on the billboard makes him as famous as Marky Mark became (before reverting back to his real name, Mark Wahlberg) by appearing in a Calvin Klein ad. By the end of the ballet, the photo is ripped and dirty, sending Dorian on a crazed spree of violence in which his murders the fashion photographer who took the picture and also became a lover. Then Dorian commits suicide by killing his Doppelgänger in bed. Don’t bother to hunt for explanations.
The parade of flesh undercuts Bourne’s theme, I think, because one can’t tell much difference between the characters, vain mannequins in the world of high fashion who spend every waking hour at photo shoots or having sex, and the posturing dancers themselves, whom we ogle for the same reason college boys used to ogle the lingerie ads in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Hasn’t Bourne broken one of the tacit rules of art here? Freud called it sublimation, the ability for erotic drives to be transformed into higher responses, one of which is aesthetic. In the 1800s the ballet corps of the Paris Opera were objects of desire for the gentleman members of the Jockey Club, but not when painted by Degas. It’s not that Eros must be considered low, shameful, secret, nasty, or dangerous—albeit Western culture has used it for all those things. But if you aim at art, you don’t aim at the groin simultaneously. I realize that Matthew Bourne disagrees with this principle, or perhaps he’d call it my problem, not his.
But I recall the worst mistake that Pauline Kael ever made when she declared in The New Yorker that the premiere of Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris was as significant as the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Paris in 1913. Such was not the case, obviously. Bertolucci took advantage of a flurry of X-rated films that soon petered out, and although prudery may have been partly responsible, moviemakers also discovered that explicit sex was a blind alley—audiences responded differently to the sex scenes than they did to the rest of the film, and that difference amounted to one of two things, embarrassed squirming or being turned on. To give him the benefit of the doubt, Bourne may feel that art can or should be a turn on. Even so, he is vulnerable to the charge that the constant gyrating, hip thrusts, mattress wrestling, masturbatory posing, and orgiastic slithering that passes for choreography in Dorian Gray is pretty cheesy. The male sex scenes involve the most muscular gyrations, some of which are quite impressive. These perfectly sculpted young dancers toss each other around like feathers. But if you aren’t in a generous mood, the dancers are just being used as meat puppets, not human beings we care about. All the more so in the case of the women on stage, who serve as sex toys swelling an erotic progress. It would be different if Dorian had a soul worth corrupting, or a soul at all. As it stands, he exists for only one purpose, so that we can imagine what it would be like to be the cynosure of every eye, not to mention much lower body parts.