Country and Town House: 'Bourne still right on pointe'

15 September 2015


Knock, knock. Who’s there? Is it the creator of the world’s longest running ballet production, five-time Olivier Award winner and the only British director to have won the Tony Award for Best Choreographer and Best Director of a Musical? No. It’s Ferdinand, his yappy 16-week-old Russian Toy Terrier, who is most insistent that the interview does not go ahead.
Fortunately Matthew Bourne comes to my rescue, sweeping the pooch under his arm and me into his 300-year-old gravedigger’s cottage (the oldest inhabited house in Islington), which he shares with his partner, and fellow choreographer, Arthur Pita, and is every bit as gothic as you’d hope from the man who managed to turn Edward Scissorhands into an award-winning ballet; with original gravestones lining the garden. But Bourne, unlike his productions, is low key. Born and raised in Hackney, he trained relatively late at the age of 22, studying dance and theatre choreography at the Laban Centre and, although he danced professionally for 14 years, ‘I always wanted my own company, right from the age of about five, the performing was more of a sideline, it was really great fun but it wasn’t my ambition.’

‘If I get carried away with something that I don’t think people will get, I won’t do it’

In 1987 he established Adventures in Motion Pictures, his first company, which produced many award-winning works until 2002, when he launched New Adventures with co-director Robert Noble. The face of dance has never been the same since. Whether you’re a die-hard ballet fan or have never been to the theatre before, there’s something for everyone in his fast-paced productions, which probably has something to do with his lack of artistic ego. ‘I’m only making it for an audience, so they come first. If I get carried away with something that I don’t think people will get, I won’t do it. I don’t see the point really, I’m not that kind of artist.’ Which is one of the reasons he doesn’t believe in printing scenarios in programmes. ‘It spoils the evening. I always think you wouldn’t do that in a film or a play, you don’t want to sit there and read it beforehand and then watch it. There’s this pompous thing in ballet and opera – well, maybe rightly so – that you can’t follow it unless you read this long scenario. I want to watch something and see what I get from it.

Laced with humour and layers of meaning, he goes to great pains to thoroughly research each production, sifting through endless historical references. ‘I love the research because it frees me up. Through reading widely, I came to realise that the Royal Ballet makes changes to productions. These pieces always evolve, they always change. There’s no “classical” version of these pieces – all productions are different.’ Although he freely admits that, ‘I do go a bit further than everyone else, but it does make you feel better, it makes you feel that everyone is doing the same thing.’ And, although ballet fans make up just ten per cent of his audiences, he admits ‘I desperately want to please those people who know the piece really well. Stupidly so, really. I want people to know that I know what I’m talking about, that I know my history.’ It is perhaps this desire that makes his work so interesting and layered for audiences, both amateur and experienced. (Ballet boffs will know what I mean when I reference his interpretation of the Rose Adagio in Sleeping Beauty.) Speaking of which, Sleeping Beauty is touring again this Christmas. Having already tackled two other Tchaikovsky ballets, he felt the time was ripe to complete the trilogy. ‘It was sort of inevitable. I found it quite difficult for a long time. As it stood, I didn’t find the story engaging. I love the music  – with Tchaikovsky you always leave the theatre humming along, it’s so melodious, so memorable – but it’s very grand and really hard to live up to. This one took a bit more work. But, having said that, it was the piece that came together the quickest for me.’ It was in fact the Disney version that helped him to identify the problem with the storyline. ‘Strangely it’s quite different from the original, where the prince doesn’t really come in to it until the end; doesn’t really know her then, 100 years later, he wakes her up and they supposedly just fall in love.’ The biggest problem to resolve was how does someone stay alive for a century? ‘That’s where the vampire idea came in. It was the only thing I could think of where you could actually sacrifice yourself in a way to still be there when she woke up, and it all comes from the same period – gothic. We were telling a story that asked the audience to accept the existence of fairies, so I just thought vampires was not a big push. Vampiric fairies was, admittedly, a bit of an invention, but why not? You get good vampires and bad vampires…’

‘You want big emotions, big ideas – melodrama’

His success boils down to his ability to pick stories that not only capture people’s imaginations but can also stand up on stage. ‘You want big emotions, big ideas – melodrama, almost – because you can play that very strongly in movement and dance. I had this conversation with Sam Mendes once about Eastenders. He said, “That’s classic Shakespearean drama”. All the different Shakespearean characters are represented.’ And Pat Butcher certainly had the stage make-up down. But he won’t let you get away with putting the onus on him. ‘If you’re a good audience, you get a better show. There’s no doubt about that. The dancers will be better because they’ll feel like doing it for you. It’s a two way thing; give and take.’ Having said that, there is also a very practical side to it all. ‘You’ve got to find reasons to dance in the story, and if there aren’t enough reasons to dance – and by that I mean group dances, solos, duets, trios, quartets. If it’s all very chamber-ish, with two people talking, it’s not enough, it doesn’t go anywhere.’ Film has had a huge impact on his work – famously, his Swan Lake references Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds – and is something that he shares in common with Lez Brotherston, who has been designing his sets and costumes since day one. ‘We sort of clicked, you know, an aligned aesthetic. His DVD collection is very similar to mine. Lots of classic movies. I consider him a complete collaborator in the sense that I wouldn’t go to him with a completely formed idea. Most of the sets he comes up with are not necessarily what I would have guessed. It’s always a moveable feast; a playground of things that you can turn into this, that and the other.’ His position has meant that he gets access that cinephiles can only dream of. ‘I once got to walk through the set for Homeland but, sadly, they weren’t filming at the time. Unlike when I went to Glee – I was in heaven, I couldn’t believe I was there in the middle of it all. It was too surreal!’ Good to know that even those in the business can lose their cool like the rest of us. ‘Although, I suppose it does spoil the magic a little bit, when you’ve got the music room from Glee next door to the New York apartment…’

If he could have watched any of the greats, it would have been Vaslav Nijinsky, ‘although I fear it would be disappointing. I love the photos, I feel the they capture something. I’m so glad there isn’t any film, actually. I think it would spoil the legend. I’d have loved to have seen Fonteyn on stage, her dancing still holds up against modern standards. Whereas Michael Somes is terribly embarrassing. They brought out this DVD last year of Fonteyn and Somes and – oh God! – his reputation is dead.’ It’s hard to imagine that he has the spare time to watch other productions. When New Adventures is on tour, he flies out on the Tuesday for opening night and stays to tweak the production until Thursday, before returning to London for meetings, to repeat it all over again. Adapting productions for different cultures is a big consideration for the company, even in England. ‘In the north they’re more vocal and just want to have a good time – it’s great – southerners can be a bit more critical; you get used to that. But it can be a shock when you go abroad to somewhere like Japan – they’re very quiet and polite during the show and you think it’s going really badly, until the end when they want you to bow – a lot. That’s when they show their appreciation. They want you to keep coming back, to the point where a British audience would laugh at you.’

‘Apparently there’s no etiquette among Chinese audiences. They’re talking or on their phones like they’re at home watching the telly.’

Next year the company takes Sleeping Beauty to China, it will be the first time they have toured there.Bourne is apprehensive. ‘Apparently there’s no etiquette among Chinese audiences. They’re talking or on their phones like they’re at home watching the telly.’ The biggest change since his early days, he notes wryly, ‘is the age gap between me and the dancers!’. But, despite all the success, he insists that, at the heart of it all, it’s still just the same company; a group of friends touring together. ‘People really envy it that everyone gets on with each other, there’s no rivalry and no hierarchy. If you’re on that night in the principal role that’s your show, you’re principal, the next night, you’re in another role, and that’s someone else’s night.’

Now comes the tricky part. How to finish a piece about a man whose pet hate is a miserable curtain call? ‘At the end, you’re saying “thank you for coming!” Anyone who’s not smiling in a genuine way in my company at a curtain call will hear about it straightaway. But it never happens, because they’re so used to it now. A lot of actors bow like it’s the last thing in the world they want to do.’ And, on that note, I bow out, with a wary grin fixed in Ferdinand’s direction.

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