'It's wonderful that dance is so popular'
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The choreographer Matthew Bourne explains to Lucy Cavendish how he came to set his new production during the Blitz, and why he loves 'Strictly Come Dancing’
By Lucy Cavendish, 7 Dec 2010
Matthew Bourne meets me in a cramped room in Three Mills Studios on the outskirts of east London. He is here to rehearse the new version of Cinderella he has choreographed and directed. Various lithe dancer-looking types are wandering around but there’s not much here in our little space: just him, me, and a tub of gold body paint.
This, in many ways, seems appropriate as there is something utterly glittery about what Bourne does. His productions are the most fun an audience could ever have in a dance theatre. They are accessible, funny, glamorous, non-stop physically involving melodramatic productions. I have seen nearly all of them and every single one, from his Nutcracker! through to Edward Scissorhands and Dorian Gray, has left me reeling with delight.
Bourne looks delighted when I tell him this. “Well, I do think of the audience when I am choreographing a show. Some people have never been to the ballet before and I’m trying to make it as simple and as accessible as possible. I don’t mean dumbing down. I mean capturing the storyline and making the audience feel something.”
It is true that Matthew Bourne has utterly changed the landscape of dance forever. Before Bourne, it was either Royal Ballet performances – beautiful, amazing, traditional, lots of tutus – or dance that was so contemporary no one could understand it.
Then Bourne came along with his new stratospherically successful all-male version of Swan Lake, and the world of dance reeled on its axis.
“Actually, it’s not all-male,” Bourne says, chastising me in his rather campy way. “There are female dancers in it.”
It caused a furore when it was performed at Sadler’s Wells 15 years ago. “Some people left halfway through. They obviously were expecting to see the usual girls in tutus. They were shocked by the men. We had small girls in tears and mothers shouting at me.”
However, Cameron Mackintosh persuaded Bourne to take it to the West End, where it routinely sold out. The production went on to tour worldwide to packed audiences and is currently selling out in New York. “I think it’s become as famous as the traditional Swan Lake,” says Bourne.
This taking of a modern classic and giving it a twist is what Bourne has become famous for. He originally did a version of The Nutcracker when he first started out with Opera North. “I suddenly had an orchestra and some dancers and I had a ball.” Then there was Car Man, from Bizet’s Carmen; and now Cinderella.
“I’ve set it at the time of the Blitz. That seems to work really well for me. The idea of time running out; quick, deep love but with an urgency. I spent a long time listening to Prokofiev’s music and, once the idea of the Blitz had come to me, I could hear bombs going off. I really think it works.”
He does a tremendous amount of research. “In one newspaper report, I found out that a freak bomb had landed on the Café de Paris. All the performers, band leader, orchestra, chorus girls, diners, everyone was sheltering underneath and the bomb went down a ventilation shaft and all of them were killed. In my mind, I started seeing a scene where they all came back to life on the dance floor.” He does this twisting, turning action with his hands. “I know it’s tragic but there is a beauty in it, isn’t there?”
This is not the first time he has staged Cinderella. “I did do a version of it straight after Swan Lake but, in all honesty, it was hard to make it work. On the one hand, Swan Lake was a hard act to follow, on the other Cinderella has so many scene changes and costumes that I couldn’t afford to do it.”
This has changed now. Bourne and his company are amazingly successful. His eight shows regularly tour the world. Why does he think audiences respond so enthusiastically?
“When I first started out, I wanted to make people laugh. I put nods and winks in, as it were. Now I want there to be some emotional truth. I want people to feel about the dance.”
Unlike most choreographers, Bourne constantly tinkers. “Swan Lake has been through many revisions. I did that when I was 35 years old. I am now 50. I have changed the production as we have all changed and evolved.” What he has really done, he says, is take some of the jokes out. “Well, some of it was crass. I took those bits out – but then the cast complain because it’s always someone’s favourite bit.”
Bourne himself didn’t dance at all as a child. “I was totally self-taught.” He grew up in Walthamstow, east London; his mother was a housewife, and his father worked for Thames Water. “They were both Londoners, and they loved musicals and films.” When they could, the family went to the theatre. “As I got older I realised this was what I loved. I used to make my own shows – do the costumes, the directing, the actors and all the characters.” He says he became so obsessed with this thespian world that he spent much of his youth hanging outside theatres waiting to get autographs.
The problem was, he himself didn’t know how to get access to this world. “I tried acting for a bit, but I didn’t like the sound of my voice.” He ended up working in a variety of places – the National Theatre bookshop, the BBC rights department. “I also travelled a lot. I went to New York, LA, India.” When he returned, aged 22, he auditioned for the Laban Centre For Movement and Dance. “I’d never really danced before,” he says, laughing. “I thought I was quite good!” He says he thinks Laban offered him a place because of his sheer enthusiasm. “I think they were impressed with how much I knew about dance and how immersed I was in it. Also, I was 22. I had made a choice to go there, unlike many dancers.”
It became obvious to him early on that he wanted to choreograph and direct. “I did dance in my own productions but my passion was in directing. Also, dancers are strange creatures. They are sort of infantalised in a way. At the Royal Ballet they are still called girls and boys, even when they have grown up. They live in a precious world of pointe and tutus. I call my dancers men and women. Our theatre is more physical and athletic.”
He says what has also changed for him is how popular dance has become. “For me, I worked in a small-scale way doing my own productions. Then I did Nutcracker! and that got me an Arts Council grant to do Swan Lake. I took on a classic and I had no idea how it would work out. Now we have the biggest advance ticket sales for Cinderella we have ever had. Dance is on the television in a way it wasn’t so much before.”
So we talk about Strictly Come Dancing. “I love it!” he says, leaning towards me, eyes shining. “I have never missed an episode.” I ask him what he likes about it. “Oh everything. The glitz, the glamour. I think it makes people at home realise that they can dance, so they get up and go out and give it a go.” Does he have a favourite-ever contestant? “Yes, I loved Tom Chambers. He danced beautifully. In this current bunch, I adore Pamela Stephenson.”
Surprisingly, he does believe that Ann Widdecombe should still be in the competition. “It’s an entertainment show. That’s why Arlene [Phillips] went. She found it hard to marry that acting-a-character side with being a serious choreographer. I know all those judges. The men play a part that has become more extreme. I think Arlene was finding that a strain and was probably secretly glad to go.”
He is, however, joyous that programmes such as Strictly have made dance so accessible. “I think it’s wonderful. Our audiences have grown and their enjoyment of dance in general has grown. I hope we have been part of that. In fact, I am sure we have been.”