Vivid shades of Hitchcock

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 January, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 January, 1993, 12:00am

WHICH opera by Tchaikovsky had its premiere at St Petersburg's Maryinsky Theatre on December 18, 1892 - the very night his Nutcracker also had its first performance at the famous venue? Matthew Bourne didn't miss a beat. ''It was his one-act piece Yolanta, which is very rarely performed now. Lovely music, but a limited plot.'' The artistic director and choreographer of British dance company Adventures In Motion Pictures knows all about Yolanta because Opera North revived it as part of a double bill with AMP at the 1992 Edinburgh Festival.

And AMP's contribution? A brand-new, daringly different version of The Nutcracker in honour of the perennial Christmas favourite's centenary.

That's one reason Bourne barely had time to draw breath last month. The other was AMP's impending tour - off to the 1993 Hongkong Arts Festival to stage Deadly Serious at the APA Drama Theatre from February 3-7.

If Yolanta stumped you, you had better sharpen your wits for next week's chiller-thriller. Alfred Hitchcock fans will have the edge, for Deadly Serious is Bourne's homage to the Master of Suspense.

Rebecca, Psycho, Strangers On A Train, The Birds, Vertigo, North By Northwest - seek and you will find Max de Winter, Mrs Danvers, Norman Bates and the rest in this two-part modern dance shocker.

You will also understand why critics across Britain - and increasingly, further afield - have been snapping to attention since AMP was launched in 1987. Reactions may vary, but in one respect the dance world is unanimous: Bourne's company is one of the hottest to hit the scene in years.

It takes its mouthful of a name from a commercial for in-flight entertainment. What is not generally known is the part Hongkong played.

''I was in my fourth year at London's Laban Centre, doing the Advanced Performers course, when I went to the APA's first Festival of Dance Academies with some other Laban students.

''It was from that group that AMP came. Five of us formed the company when we got back to the UK.'' Matthew Bourne was speaking at his headquarters in Bristol. It's a quaint, but sturdy building whose origins are still obvious.

''The old Bristol Public Baths. Our dance floor covers what used to be the swimming-pool, though the rest didn't need too much renovation. We're very lucky; impossible to get a place this size in London.'' The kind of talent Bourne insists on is almost as hard to come by in this age of technically proficient clones.

''The work we're doing demands a very different sort of dancer. We get some wonderfully trained people auditioning, but the trouble is they're so boring because they haven't been taught to act.

''At AMP, we talk and read a lot before we even get going on a new piece. It's essential if your characters are to have any depth.'' Bourne is the only remaining member of AMP's original group, but it's no coincidence that the Laban Centre continues to provide much of the company's talent.

''The London Contemporary Dance School used to be the big one, but increasingly Laban is taking over, especially in choreography.

''It's also turning out excellent, strongly individual dancers with minds of their own.'' Deft characterisation - and some very sharp footwork - is crucial in Deadly Serious which opens with the black-and-white Overwrought, dedicated to Hitchcock's earlier films, and bursts into glorious Technicolor (''a bit fuzzy at the edges'') for Part Two,Rear Entry, inspired by the master's films of the 50s.

It's loaded with Hitchcockian references, but you don't need to be a movie buff to enjoy the show, Bourne assured.

''Anyone who likes cinema and theatre, and has a sense of humour, will find Deadly Serious entertaining. That may sound like a weird thing for someone from a dance company to say, but AMP really does cross the barriers.'' He did it to stunning effect in Town and Country, which was nominated for a 1992 Olivier Award, and in The Nutcracker which looks set for international exposure.

If Hongkong gets it, audiences will be in for a radically different treatment of the classical favourite.

''The trouble with The Nutcracker is that the story fizzles out half-way through and I wanted one that grips till the end - so I set it in an orphanage which is celebrating its Open Day with a Christmas party.'' It's the start of a delicious romp whose characters include the pompous Dr and Mrs Dross and their two obnoxious brats, and which has audiences on the edge of their seats when an earthquake hits, allowing the orphans to escape from their grim existence toa dazzling world of ice and snow.

''Pretty spectacular all in all, and also quite sexy,'' Bourne grinned. ''There's nothing prim about our Nutcracker.'' The macabre has equally powerful appeal for the 32-year-old East Londoner whose innovative company has recently had some ''pretty wonderful'' offers including projects with the National Theatre and actor Nigel Hawthorne.

A big diet of Hitchcock? Actually, an overdose of death in his first job. It was with the BBC and each morning, the then 18-year-old's first job was to put black stickers on the files of everybody who had died the day before.

''It had a lasting effect,'' Matthew Bourne confessed. ''The first thing I still turn to in the papers is the obituaries.'' Zelda Cawthorne was flown to the UK by British Airways for this interview.