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‘My Fair Lady’ choreography bears the Bourne identity

Lisa O'Hare as Eliza Doolittle and Christopher Cazenove as Professor Henry Higgins.
Photo by Michael Le Poer Trench
Lisa O’Hare as Eliza Doolittle and Christopher Cazenove as Professor Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady,” which opens Wednesday at the Orpheum.

London-based choreographer Matthew Bourne has made quite a career out of telling classic stories through movement. Eight years after launching his first company in 1987, Bourne created his boundary-busting version of “Swan Lake,” performed in Minneapolis two years ago.

Instead of lithe, en pointe, tutu-clad female swans, Bourne’s version was populated with bare-chested, barefoot male dancers wearing enormous swan wings and feathered pantaloons. Instead of flitting gracefully about the stage, these beefy swans hissed, seduced and fought with animalistic virility. See a snippet of the ballroom scene (sorry, no swans) below the advertisement.

This year, Bourne’s work will appear in the touring version of “My Fair Lady,” which opens Wednesday (Feb. 20) at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. Local audiences have been exposed to Bourne and his New Adventures company’s work for a number of years.

His 2000 “The Car Man: An Auto-Erotic Thriller” (performed in St. Paul in 2001) was a radical revision of Bizet’s opera “Carmen.” Set in 1960s, the testosterone-laden story focuses on a stranger who seduces boy and girl alike in a Midwestern, Italian-American town. Violence ensues, all of it danced. To view a compilation of scenes, go here.

Last year, Bourne’s 2005 version of Tim Burton’s film “Edward Scissorhands” reached St. Paul. The choreographer’s take on a physical and social outcast taken in by a “normal” American family expressed every action, emotion and narrative event through movement. As Bourne explained to me last year, “I always work in non-verbal narrative. I tell a story, without words, through any dance or movement styles that are appropriate.” To watch part of “Scissorhands” and hear Bourne talk about the work, go here.

Lisa O'Hare as Eliza Doolittle.
Photo by Michael Le Poer Trench
Lisa O’Hare as Eliza Doolittle.

Bourne not only directs and choreographers his own “dansicals,” as one critic dubbed his work, but he also makes movement for other people’s musicals — that’s right: stories with words, sung and spoken.

“My Fair Lady” is coming here as part of a U.S. tour after the production’s West End run in London and a United Kingdom tour. For his work on this show, Bourne won a Laurence Olivier Award for Best Theatre Choreographer. Here’s a clip.

Some adjustments for U.S. tour
Fergus Logan, the production’s associate choreographer, has re-created and restaged Bourne’s movement for the U.S. touring production. “My job is to adapt the choreography to the American performances and make it work for them,” Logan says.

“Through the nature of American training and the American way of being, the dancers tend to want to be a bit-more showy and a bit-more Broadway,” Logan says. “I keep telling them, ‘No, this is ‘My Fair Lady!’ It’s English. You have to tone it down a bit.’ That’s been quite a challenge for them, as well.”

About the choreography, Logan says, “There’s nothing in the show just for the sake of dance. All the choreography is driven by the narrative and the storytelling. The dance always evolves out of the scene. It’s concentrated and focused. And there are also very distinctive styles” that add to characterizations.

“Because ‘My Fair Lady’ is a show that deals with the class system in England,” he explains, “you have very poor people and very rich people, and those different parts of society have a different physicality and movement vocabulary. So we spent a lot of time examining how very posh people walk and how very common people would walk.”

The number “With a Little Bit of Luck,” for instance, starts inside a pub, “and then builds and builds until everybody spills outside of the pub and people find anything they can to join into this percussive, ‘Stomp’ sort of celebration,” Logan says. “People have got cooking utensils and saucepans, and bin lids on their feet. It’s nothing but a joy working with this company.”

What: “My Fair Lady”
When: Various times, Feb. 20-March 2
Where: Orpheum Theatre, Minneapolis
Tickets: $23-$78
Phone: 612-673-5665
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