LONDON — As portrayed by Johnny Depp 17 years ago in the movie by Tim Burton, Edward Scissorhands was many things to many people: a wild child, an artist, a sex symbol, a freak, a killer through little fault of his own and finally the phantom of a love long lost. As reborn in a new theater piece by Matthew Bourne, Edward is all these things and perhaps something more: the latest member of the select circle of semianimate figures who have found a lasting home in dance.
A popular hit in Mr. Bourne’s native England (though some critics frowned), his “Edward Scissorhands” is cutting a broad swath through North America, with dates in a dozen cities. On Wednesday it arrives at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for two and a half weeks, trailing raves from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington and elsewhere.
Mr. Bourne, 47, is the choreographer who recast Tchaikovsky’s swans as bare-chested, barefoot men in fluffy pantaloons in what is said to be the longest-running ballet production in history. Since its debut in London in 1995, his “Swan Lake” has proved an international sensation. Arriving on Broadway in 1998 it won Mr. Bourne Tony Awards as best choreographer and best director of a musical. It is now on tour in Australia, with Moscow to follow this spring.
Mr. Bourne’s shows tour under the aegis of New Adventures, a company founded in 2002 to perform and tour his repertory of danced story theater. The seven productions, all evening-length, include glosses on “The Nutcracker,” “Cinderella” and “La Sylphide” that are witty, unabashedly sentimental and deeply informed by Mr. Bourne’s childhood passion for old movies.
He also provided choreography for productions of “My Fair Lady” and “South Pacific” here in London, and of “Mary Poppins” here and on Broadway. He dropped another project long on his agenda, “The Little Mermaid” (now scheduled for a Denver premiere in June, directed by Francesca Zambello, with choreography by Stephen Mear, Mr. Bourne’s co-choreographer on “Mary Poppins”).
“The show was going in directions I wasn’t interested in, so I pulled out,” Mr. Bourne said in January, sitting at his kitchen table in the quietly arty neighborhood of Islington. “I don’t think I’ll do many more musicals. Going to new places feels more unique, more valuable. With New Adventures I have the privilege to do anything I want, which is always the hard part. Why give that up?”
“Mary Poppins” and “Edward Scissorhands” each took about 10 years from conception to opening night. Now Mr. Bourne is allowing himself the leisure to think where to go next.
Like Petrouchka, the rebellious, doomed puppet in Michel Fokine’s ballet to Stravinsky’s famous score, Edward Scissorhands is a not-quite-human being who longs to be real. Caroline Thompson, who wrote the screenplay and collaborated with Mr. Bourne on adapting it, thinks of Edward as “an outsider who wants to be an insider,” she said, casually likening him to Frankenstein’s monster and Pinocchio. But the emotional core of Edward came from quite another source.
“Edward Scissorhands was based on a beloved dog of mine,” Ms. Thompson said after revisiting the show at the Kennedy Center in Washington. “She was the most soulful, yearning creature I ever met. She wanted to participate in everything. She didn’t need language to communicate. She communicated with her eyes.”
Mr. Depp had few lines to speak. Far more memorable than any dialogue were those hands: sharp, shiny metallic hardware a foot long that quivered with unspoken emotion. By rights they should be a choreographer’s nightmare.
This choreographer thought otherwise. “Rather than a hindrance, they were a blessing,” Mr. Bourne said. “It’s easiest to work with restrictions. If you have a young girl and a young boy in love, and just go, that’s hard to do. The hands create a set of problems, a sense of danger, of awkwardness. Can you lift? Can you turn? That makes it exciting.”
Mr. Bourne set himself the further challenge of expressing Edward’s journey through the arc of his dancing, moving from robotic pantomime to goofiness, then confidence, then operatic despair. If along the way Edward sheds his blades for a dream pas de deux backed by dancing topiary, is Mr. Bourne expanding Edward’s range or just cheating?
From the start of his career Mr. Bourne has created movement very much in tandem with the dancers. Between performances in Washington, Sam Archer and Richard Winsor, the two original but quite distinguishable dancing Edwards, confirmed that this method remained in force.
“Matthew set us tasks,” Mr. Winsor said, describing the early workshops, “and we came up with steps.” That spirit of collaboration may be one reason the pure-dance contingent views Mr. Bourne with distrust. Another might be his fondness for show and ballroom styles, which make up in energy what they lack in mystique. Early reviews of his hit shows could be scathing.
“I get that less now,” Mr. Bourne said. “People know what I do. Someone once wrote that Matthew Bourne had made dance theater popular by taking out the dancing. Not to be pretentious about it, but for most of our audiences our shows are the most amazing dancing they’ve ever seen. They don’t see all the ballet and modern dance the hard-core dance fans see. I do take pride in what I’ve made.”
So it’s not “Concerto Barocco.” Still, Mr. Bourne’s skills as a storyteller — greatly abetted by the set and costume designs of Lez Brotherston, his longtime collaborator — can give his work remarkable resonance. What seems to strike most viewers first is Mr. Bourne’s sharp social satire: those worse-than-Windsor royals of “Swan Lake,” the grim evangelicals of “Edward Scissorhands.” Repeat customers are often surprised by the ballets’ romantic streak.
“The elements of humor, of fun, give audiences something they need before you take them to abstract dances,” Mr. Bourne said. “But for me there needs to be a heartfelt psychology, something darker. That’s what makes me want to work on a piece for the two or three years.”
Another prime motivator for Mr. Bourne is music. The “Edward Scissorhands” score, by Terry Davies, preserves themes from Danny Elfman’s hazily hypnotic film score and, with them, much of the movie’s distinctive fairy-tale-gothic perfume. But the ballet’s scenario, revised with Ms. Thompson’s enthusiastic participation, adheres more to the film’s spirit than to its road map.
“It was good to watch the DVD with Tim Burton’s commentary,” Mr. Archer was saying when Mr. Winsor jumped in: “The danger was to watch too much, to play a caricature of Johnny Depp, adopting his body stance rather than playing the character through my own feelings.”
Ms. Thompson sees the harlequinesque Mr. Winsor (who trained in musical theater) as the “more sensual” and the taller, heavier-boned Mr. Archer (a ballet academy graduate) as the “more anxious” of the Edwards. Like Mr. Bourne she is pleased that they are not carbon copies of each other. Mr. Archer and Mr. Winsor in turn are quick to acknowledge all they have picked up from each other.
“Initially we were told Sam was very strong at the comical, witty, humorous side of the part,” Mr. Winsor said. “There’s a Fred Astaire feeling he has in Edward’s drunk scenes that comes very naturally to him. I learned a lot of that from him.”
Mr. Archer looked to Mr. Winsor for other things. “At the beginning I think I was feeling a great deal but not projecting enough,” he said. “On film Johnny Depp could do almost nothing, and viewers could read him. But in a theater, with 2,000 people looking at you, you need the projection to be large. I learned a lot about that watching Richard, the way he projects Edward’s lost feeling.”
On Dec. 30 both Edwards were at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles when Mr. Depp attended a matinee of “Edward Scissorhands” with family and entourage. “He visited backstage for an hour afterwards,” said Mr. Archer, who danced that show. “He tried on a hand, and that was quite surreal. He said he doesn’t watch his films, so this was the first time he had seen the story in 16 years. He said it was lovely to see it taken in a different direction.”
Days later, in London, Mr. Bourne received a souvenir program from Los Angeles with an inscription that read in part, “Trembled on the verge of tears, mate.” It was signed Johnny Depp.
Correction: March 18, 2007
An article last Sunday about the dance-theater work