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Inventing `Scissorhands'

Matthew Bourne's onstage worlds don't spring up out of nowhere. Designer and co-conspirator Lez Brotherston has a big hand in it too.

December 10, 2006|Karen Wada | Special to The Times

LEZ BROTHERSTON loves a challenge. That's one reason he's the perfect match for Matthew Bourne, the choreographer-provcateur whose wide-ranging imagination might daunt a less creative collaborator. Bourne has become a pop icon famous for spinning fresh tales out of well-trodden classics. Crucial to his success is Brotherston, a master at translating the wildest notions into sets and costumes that exude so much personality and fit so indispensably into the action that they seem like members of the cast.

"My relationship with Lez is the most important one in my career," says Bourne. "His great gift is that he is so fluid, ready for anything. He understands all the things dance can do in terms of telling a story."

Such talents have made the 45-year-old Brotherston a sought-after designer of dance, opera and theater in his native England. In America, however, he is known mainly for working with his countryman Bourne. Their first international triumph was a stunning 1995 "Swan Lake" that offered a host of potential design headaches including a prince-bird romance and a hunky corps de ballet. Since then they have sent Cinderella into the wartime Blitz, transformed Carmen into a bisexual drifter, and played power games with a frisky set of servants and masters in '60s London.

Their current venture, which opens at the Ahmanson Theatre this week, is one of their trickiest -- a reimagining of Tim Burton's 1990 film "Edward Scissorhands." The bittersweet fable about a boy whose inventor gives him shears for hands has such devoted fans and is so visually distinctive it's a mixed blessing for a team determined to tell old stories in new ways. "I've learned the key is to understand what people love and be true to that," says Bourne, "while also offering surprises."

Typically, Brotherston is more blunt. "Why do something if you aren't going to do more than make the same thing?" he asks. "Burton's creations are fantastic. Colleen Atwood's costumes are brilliant. But I'd be mad to reproduce them just because that's how they'd done it. What we're doing isn't a copy of the film. It's born of our own logic. It will be recognizable, even if we arrived by a different route."

The stage version, which debuted in London a year ago, relies on movement and music (Danny Elfman's film score, with additions by frequent Bourne collaborator Terry Davies) to bring us Edward's adventures in suburbia. At first he is welcomed by a tract full of stylized sitcom families and flirts with feelings of self-discovery and of love -- for cheerleader Kim -- until his neighbors turn fickle and his nemesis -- a jock and rival for Kim's affections -- engineers his downfall.

Bourne has tried to heighten the humor and emotional resonance -- "we want to break people's hearts a little more" -- while Brotherston has riffed on the movie's comic-gothic wonderland with his own form of magic realism.

"My job is to make a character and make a world for that character," says Brotherston, "then make you believe in that character and that world. I don't look at how to create another white tutu." Indeed, his costumes are not typical dance fare, designed from the waist up with tights and slippers below. His sets are interactive playgrounds, ingenious and suggestive, nimble enough to handle the shifting moods and points of view that are Bourne trademarks.

"Working with Matt keeps it interesting," Brotherston says, "because I keep testing myself. Designing is about solving problems, and about solving problems with others. Everything has to be balanced so you can't tell what is what. It may be the acting, the visuals, the music. It's the whole experience that moves you."

Focusing on the story

THE son of a seaman and a factory worker, Brotherston grew up in Liverpool, where he was a backstage denizen of the local youth theater. He studied at the Central School for Art and Design in London even though, he says, "drawing didn't come naturally -- it still doesn't but I've developed a way of communicating my ideas through sketches rendered my way, and by saying, 'Trust me on this.' "

After he left school, Brotherston built film and TV props until he established himself as an opera and repertory designer. In the late '80s he started working with Christopher Gable's Northern Ballet Theatre in Leeds. "Christopher didn't have the resources for a top-flight technical company," says Brotherston, so he urged his casts to ignore tradition and "think, act, be more about theater than dance." Brotherston developed his interest in storytelling while designing for Gable, a former Royal Ballet principal who died in 1998.

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