Matthew talks about Nutcracker

2 April 2014

Q & A with Matthew Bourne

Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker is now 120 years old. Why does it remain so popular?

Well it’s about growing up and it’s about first love and these are themes we can all relate to. They are particularly relevant to this production, which casts adult performers as a group of very needy young orphans. It’s also a touching coming-of-age story told through the dreams, and nightmares, of one particular young girl, Clara.

The classical Nutcracker has also become a Christmas tradition; it’s often the first ballet that many people see. It can though, be a difficult story to follow and be a bore for the men of the family. I’ve tried to tell a story for all the family. Adults, kids, girls and boys should all find something to thrill them and touch them in Clara’s adventure.

I would also like to think that the main reason that Nutcracker has retained its perennial appeal is because of Tchaikovsky’s incredible score. Act One contains some of his most engaging and, at times, profound story-telling music and Act Two has one glorious melody after another. After 120 years it retains its mystery, magic and the power to transport us to another world.

Your first production of Nutcracker was for Opera North in 1992 as part of the work’s centenary celebrations. Why has it become such an important part of the New Adventures repertory?

 It was the first full-evening story ballet that I had the chance to choreograph and started me on an unexpected journey, creating new and alternative productions of other classic works (Highland Fling (La Sylphide), Swan Lake, Cinderella, The Car Man). 

When Nicholas Payne asked me and my company to take it on, it was certainly something that I would have ever contemplated. After all, we were a small touring company of six dancers, so a large-scale classical ballet was not really a realistic option. It didn’t take me long to realise, though, that this was a gift and a challenge that couldn’t be passed up. 

The experience of creating it was a very happy one. With only five weeks rehearsal before an opening at the 1992 Edinburgh Festival, the ideas had to come fast, by necessity. Somehow, with the help of Anthony Ward’s now iconic designs, it all worked out and was brought back for two Christmas seasons at Sadler’s Wells in 1993 and 1994. 

In 2002 it was substantially reworked in a major new production which helped to launch my new Company, New Adventures. It has since become one of the the most popular productions in our repertory and probably the most successful single production of the piece ever produced in the UK. We wanted to celebrate that success and acknowledge this much loved productions’ 20th Birthday, as well as introducing it to another generation of dance/theatre lovers.

In most classical productions the piece begins at a very heavily populated and extremely wealthy Christmas party. An enormous Christmas tree usually acts as the centrepiece and many luxurious gifts are given. Your production begins in a very bleak Dickensian orphanage where the children are experiencing a very different kind of Christmas. Why did you choose to do this?

I have always felt that the Christmas Party that opens most productions of Nutcracker represented a fantasy in itself for most audiences. Therefore, when we are transported into Clara’s fantasy world we have really just gone from one idyllic fantasy to another. 

Martin Duncan (the original 1992 Director) and I had an instinct that we would feel the transformation that much more if the Christmas Party that begins the piece was less opulent and more bittersweet. We came up the notion of an awful Dickensian orphanage, enjoying the annual Christmas Eve visit of the Institute’s Governors. 

Dr Dross and his wife, who run the orphanage, contrive to create a pleasant Christmas atmosphere for the benefit of the visitors, only to snatch the Governors gifts back from the children as soon as they leave and before Christmas day has even begun. Clara is, of course, one of the Orphans and the Nutcracker boy is a fellow orphan on whom she has a young girls crush. 

Fritz and Sugar are the Dross’ awful spoilt children who terrorise the other children. So the basis for the whole story developed out of this grim and fearful place. I should say, though, that as well as having this bittersweet quality it is also very funny, and when the Orphans eventually revolt and escape from the clutches of Dr Dross you want to cheer them on.

The famous ‘snowflake’ sequence which ends act one is transformed into a glorious ‘ice-skating’ extravaganza in your staging. What was the inspiration for this?

There are certain things that every production of Nutcracker should deliver – the growing Christmas tree, the transformation of the Nutcracker into a young man and the falling of snow during the ‘snowflake’ sequence.

Everyone feels a sense of childlike pleasure when snow begins to fall and I wanted to try and capture that sense of pure joy seen through the eyes of the orphan children. So, rather than depict the snowflakes themselves, as in the classical version, I have the Orphans skating across a frozen pond as an exhilarating expression of their newfound freedom.

The idea, however, came not from Torvill and Dean, much as I love them, but from the 30’s movie skating star, Sonje Henie. For me she is the perfect image of Princess Sugar and Anthony Ward certainly found inspiration in her many and varied skating ensembles.

One of the highlights of the Petipa/Ivanov original is always the suite of national dances that are staged for Clara’s edification in the land of the sweets. I believe that you created some new characters for these dances?

One of the pleasures of creating these characters was to link them with their orphanage counterparts. In Clara’s imagination her friends become the fluffy Marshmallow girls, the yobby Gobstopper boys, the vain Liquorice Allsorts trio and the lewd and sticky Knickerbocker Glory. 

Her best friends, the twins, become her heavenly helpers, the Cupids. Dr and Mrs Dross transform into the glamorous rulers of Sweetieland, King Sherbert and Queen Candy, and their bratish children, Sugar and Fritz, grow up to become Princess Sugar and saucy Prince Bon Bon.

Everything is edible in Sweetieland and its inhabitants are judged not by how they look but by how they taste!

How will the 2011 production differ from the production that was last seen at Sadler’s Wells in 2007

Our aim has always been to take a fresh look at every aspect of Nutcracker!, whilst retaining the innocence and charm of the original production. As each new generation of dancers take on these wonderful roles, we always find new ideas and new things to inspire us. Years on, I find Tchaikovsky’s music more and more profound – its magic turns us all into kids again.

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