Edward Scissorhands

At the Brooklyn Academy of Music through March 31.

At its core, Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands is elemental: the simple tale of a gentle innocent martyred by a cruel, uncomprehending world. That simplicity, that mythic quality, is well-suited for interpretation through dance. Spared the elaborate expository pantomimes, freed from the fussiness of a complicated plot, the dancers can focus on the story’s grand emotion, which is what they’re best at portraying anyway, especially when accompanied by music as evocative as Danny Elfman’s.

So why, when it’s so unnecessary, does choreographer Matthew Bourne insist of mucking up his Edward Scissorhands ballet with cutesy silent-movie-style acting, overembellished storytelling, and flashy, distracting sets? I’m sure it’s supposed to be “accessible,” but it ends up being shallow, not just artistically but—worse—emotionally. The climax has no punch because the movements have no passion.

Bourne’s Edward Scissorhands isn’t bad, exactly, but it isn’t memorable or moving. Compared with the fire of his iconic Swan Lake (key scenes of which I recently rewatched online—thank you, YouTube!), Scissorhands feels hollow.

To be fair, Burton’s 1990 film owes a great deal to Johnny Depp’s subtle performance. His Edward has few lines, a stiff bearing, and an almost invariably solemn face, so Depp communicates everything through his eyes—quietly but poignantly. Perhaps the dancer who plays Edward onstage has similarly expressive eyes, but that doesn’t come across without movie close-ups. Consequently, Bourne’s Edward doesn’t inspire empathy; he’s a weirdly awkward black hole of charisma.

In fact, the more I watched Bourne’s Edward Scissorhands, the more I wondered whether the whole project was fatally flawed. With enormous blades for fingers, Edward can’t really dance with the other characters—or even that close to them. I doubt the prop could actually hurt anyone, but regardless, Edward can’t run around striking the other characters (or himself) with his scissorhands.

Edward is supposed to be awkward and isolated, yes, but he still should have more opportunities to dance, even in solo. Instead, the ostensible star of the show spends much of his time standing stiffly and wiggling his fingers to represent Edward cutting hair, Edward trimming a topiary, Edward carving an ice sculpture. It moves the plot along, but it’s not compelling choreography, and it gives us little insight into Edward’s character.

The one truly lovely scene in Bourne’s production is a dream sequence in which Edward appears without those awful scissorhands in a pas de deux with Kim, the object of his chaste affection. The choreography is sweet and wistful, especially in the way Bourne incorporates a dozen or so fanciful dancing topiaries. It works because he has taken components of Burton’s movie—Edward’s courtly love for Kim, his topiary creations, Elfman’s magical theme—and adapted them for what works best on stage as dance.

Unfortunately, Bourne lacked either the courage or the creativity to do more of that. One of the most disappointing scenes in his production is the moment in which Kim discovers Edward carving an enormous ice sculpture. On film, it’s unforgettable: luminous flakes falling against a night sky, Kim (played by Winona Ryder) turning in slow motion with her arms uplifted, her face illuminated with joy and twinkling Christmas lights.

Bourne tries to duplicate that onstage, but what little appeal it holds is vestigial, not inherent. The literal translation doesn’t work—it just gives us an enormous prop spewing white flakes everywhere with all the charm of a snowplow—and Bourne hasn’t dared to choreograph something different, something that might capture the essence of the scene, even if it abandoned some of the concrete details.

Critics often charge that Bourne is too much the populist, dumbing dance down to appeal to a broader audience, but I don’t think that’s the problem with Scissorhands. What bothers me is that Bourne seems to be trying to tell a story in the same way a film director would, and that’s a mistake. A choreographer really ought to know that movies and dance are completely different media, and the kind of storytelling that works in one doesn’t in the other, but Bourne seems to have lost sight of that basic fact and thus lost sight of what makes dance special.

I can’t imagine that Bourne’s Scissorhands will convince any dance-phobic viewer to appreciate dance because it doesn’t appreciate dance. In the end, it’s just a washed-out photocopy of the movie. It makes me want to watch the movie again (I haven’t seen it since I was a child), but it doesn’t make me excited about dance.

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