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Dancing with scissors

Translating the movie Edward Scissorhands

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It took an Avon Lady to lure Edward away from his crenellated castle to a nearby suburbia when Edward Scissorhands sprung from the imagination of filmmaker Tim Burton. Amid the music and dance of Michael Bourne's new stage version, making its East Coast debut at Belk Theater this Thursday, cosmetic sales and doorbell chimes are tossed aside.

Makes sense. Bourne has built his reputation on spinning old stories in new directions, including Swan Lake, Cinderella and Carmen. Coming on the heels -- and toes -- of such musical fare, Scissorhands may seem like a sharp departure. But Bourne has stated that Danny Elfman's "achingly romantic" film score was what cut him deepest when he first saw the screen Scissorhands. So Elfman's melodies are as much a part of the new fabric as the characters created by Bourne with screenwriter Caroline Thompson.

Bourne also fixed upon the Chaplinesque quality of Scissorhands, most obvious when Edward shambles back to the vacant Gothic mansion where a crazed scientist -- none other than Vincent Price -- had created him. Wielding Edward's signature scissors, actor Johnny Depp spoke fewer than 200 words in his memorable portrait.

"He is not unlike a silent movie actor," Bourne says, "and this lends itself beautifully to our production."

Scott Ambler plays a dual role in the new Scissorhands tour, scheduled to touch down in New York on March 14. Onstage, he portrays Edward's unflappable surrogate dad, Bill Boggs. Behind the scenes, he is Bourne's associate director. Working with Bourne since 1991 in numerous principal roles -- including The Prince in Swan Lake -- Ambler has had a close-up view of the Scissorhands creative process together with a wider perspective on Bourne's overall artistic development and achievement.

"The character of Edward works well in a dance context," Ambler observes. "He's a creation, made by an Inventor, so there is a sense of him learning to move, to react to a world he is unfamiliar with. We've added the idea that he is a good physical mimic, able to copy mannerisms and movement. Again, as in the movie, Edward becomes a catalyst and we learn a lot about the characters he meets through their interaction with him. Edward is an innocent, without guile or agenda. The same cannot be said for the people he meets in our fictitious town of Hope Springs!"

If the non-verbal Edward translates easily from film to dance, other characters undergo radical metamorphosis. While his wife must discard her Avon calling, Bill Boggs is no less transformed when stripped of his dialogue. Ambler can attest to the difficulty.

"In the movie, Alan Arkin's Bill is a very down-to-earth guy, doesn't judge, takes everything in his stride," Ambler emphasizes. "He's a very verbal character in the sense that he sits down and talks a lot to Edward, offers advice and tries to be a kind of mentor. That doesn't easily translate into movement so we had to re-think Bill and come up with a reason for him to physicalise things. I've turned him into a Barbeque Dad, hard-working and generous, but who likes to entertain. He's the kind of Dad who dances enthusiastically but badly at parties and is prepared to be the butt of a joke. His kids are constantly cringing at his efforts to be 'hip.'"

Hippest of the Hope Springs kids is Bill's daughter, Kim -- Edward's love interest from the moment he lays eyes on her. The intersection of Gothic monster flicks with '50s suburbia resulted in the widest of character arcs for Kim in Burton's realization. Kim's first sight of Edward is the essence of Fay Wray fright, yet she progresses emotionally from terror to fascination to empathy and, finally, to love. At the same time, her ethical journey begins at sluttish, amoral manipulation and reaches unexpected heights of bravery and spirituality.

It's hazardous enough for an actress to enter those romantic clinches with Edward's scissors wrapped around her. Dancing with those scissors compounds the danger. Just ask Kerry Biggin, the dancer who is currently replicating the Winona Ryder role in Scissorhands.

"We approached things slowly and in stages," Biggin begins, describing studio rehearsals. "A lot of the material was created and practiced without the scissors and then once we were sure of the movement we worked through slowly wearing goggles! It was really a matter of the Edwards getting used to the length and weight of them and the Kims adjusting to the feeling of blades flying past our faces! As we got braver, we were able to commit ourselves more physically and the scissors evolved from a huge obstacle to really part of the dance. In a way the process was a physical parallel to the emotional journey in the story in which Kim eventually sees past the scissors (Edward's handicap) and just sees his openness and vulnerability."

Wrapped in the vortex of Edward's yearnings -- and standing literally in the middle of the climactic fight between Edward and Kim's discarded boyfriend, Jim -- Biggin understandably registers the trailblazing aspects of Scissorhands in live performance. Her background in ballet and contemporary dance didn't quite prepare her for this.

"Working with Matthew Bourne is a completely different experience and process to any other modern dance project I have worked on," Biggin declares. "His work calls upon so many aspects of performance -- many different dance forms, acting, character work and the ability to tell a story through dance, expression and body language. Matthew Bourne's style of storytelling is completely unique and though Scissorhands came from the same collaborative process as his earlier works, it has developed into an entirely original theatrical experience where the line between film and theater has merged."

Bourne's visionary production of Swan Lake made him the first Brit to win Tony Awards for both stage direction and choreography, so he's not exactly a stranger to Broadway. Nor is he a stranger to conventional musicals. Matt's mainstream mass-audience creds are being cemented with the current Disney production of Mary Poppins, which opened on Broadway in mid-November, co-directed and choreographed by Bourne.

So you needn't worry that Bourne's Scissorhands will be overly artsy and outre. Speaking of artsy, however, we should remember that part of Edward's original appeal was his personal artistry. That will be preserved onstage. Along with the creepy mansion, the graveyard and showers of snow, Bourne promises that we'll see Edward's topiary and ice sculpture creations.

Ambler, perhaps sensing that categorizing Bourne as a revolutionary is intimidating for the average theatergoer, talks up the traditional in his work.

"What we do is essentially old fashioned story-telling," he insists. "Matthew has always enjoyed narrative work and takes great pleasure in finding ways to re-imagine existing stories and present them to modern audiences. The themes of the Gothic colliding with the suburban, a stranger altering the lives of those he encounters and love flourishing against all odds are all very appealing story telling devices. Edward's story is a modern fable, a journey filled with discovery and conflict, which lends itself to great drama."

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