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Director and Choreographer
by Dani Crawford
At 22 years
old and with no formal dance training, Matthew Bourne set out to find
a place for himself in the dance world. His journey ended up in a most
"It's a little world of people who are all interconnected in a kind
of work that I think has been influenced in many ways by the success of
'Swan Lake.' That started the ball rolling on a lot of projects which
is great. I am very happy about that. And I can also see why what we are
doing is appealing to a lot of people. I've put a lot of effort into making
it work for the audiences we have now." --Matthew Bourne
It's been nearly ten years since Matthew Bourne's 'Swan Lake' premiered
to astonished audiences in London. Since that time the production has
reached, in some circles, legendary status with Bourne and his dancers
achieving a level of fame and adulation you might expect to see lavished
upon rock stars. Who knew that replacing ballerinas in tutus with bare-chested
men in feathered trousers would make such an impact? Of course, that difference
alone is merely the tip of the iceberg and Bourne's 'Swan Lake' has succeeded
in doing more to open the world of dance to the lay public than the choreographer
himself could possibly have imagined. And while he is happy that this
piece has affected so many people in such a personal way, more importantly,
'Swan Lake' has proved to be the catalyst for his company's recognition
as well as its growth.
New Adventures, Matthew's newest venture, launched in 2002 and employs
over 70 dancers -- a far cry from the original six who formed the first
company, Adventures in Motion Pictures, in 1986. Bourne's love affair
with film, dance and theatre, however, has been a long and ongoing one.
At the age of 8 he began putting on his first shows at school, with versions
of Disney classics like 'Cinderella' and 'Mary Poppins'. He held auditions,
collected props and costumes, directed and also acted in these 'early'
works. Now, at 44 years of age, he has a bit of help with all those duties,
but one thing has not changed. He still exudes a childlike excitement
when he 'puts on' his shows today -- an enthusiasm and joy evident on
every level of every production he does. It's easy to surmise that his
love for what he creates helps to fuel the tremendous success that he
has had in entertaining audiences over the years.
So, too, Bourne has not forgotten where he started out -- as a fan himself.
His career in the theatre began as an usher at The National Theatre in
London and his hobby was collecting autographs of stage and screen stars.
Despite the colossal pull on his time these days, he still affords some
of it for his fans; quite evident when you see him thronged by layers
of them as he patiently signs autographs and answers questions about his
work. Celebrity seems not to have affected him much and if you did not
know him, you might be hard pressed to detect that under his quiet and
unassuming manner, there is a man with a clear-eyed vision for story telling,
a meticulous eye for detail, and a very wicked wit.
If 2004 is a precursor of things to come for his company, then 2005 is
set to be the most exhilarating and successful year yet in Bourne's remarkable
career. If all falls into place, New Adventures will have five different
productions running at various times during the year.
Bourne's 'Swan Lake' -- a multi-layered drama with thematic threads that
include, love, betrayal, jealousy, manipulation, oedipal drama, and nods
to popular culture -- will celebrate its anniversary with a two-month
run in London. There will also be a tour outside the UK with dates, venues
and casting still in the planning. It should be duly noted that Bourne's
'Swan Lake' is the world's longest running ballet production and has garnered
over 30 international awards, including the two Tony Awards that Bourne
accepted for Best Choreography and Best Direction. He is, in fact, the
only British choreographer ever to win two Tonys in the same year. Lez
Brotherston who designed the production, also walked away with a Tony
'Nutcracker!' and the award winning 'Play Without Words' -- both having
had hugely successful runs in London, the UK and Japan this season --
are at long last headed to the United States, which has not seen a Bourne
production since 'The Car Man' in 2001.
These productions offer up two very different evenings of entertainment.
While 'Nutcracker!' may begin in a dreary orphanage, it's chock full of
riotous and rambunctious orphans. The story soon opens up into a technicolor
playground for Clara where the Nutcracker is a shirtless hunk, the sweet
treats (who look a bit like Vegas show girls) are called Marshmallow Girls,
and the show closes out with a screaming pink wedding cake number that
brings to mind glorious visions of a Busby Berkeley musical.
In a different vein, 'Play Without Words' is a taut, sexy, thriller loosely
based on Joseph Losey's film, 'The Servant'. Set in the 60's, the roles
are cast in triplicate, revealing to the audience the different possibilities
and nuances of each character. Lust, dominance, revenge, and deception
are all served up on a silver platter in this production which won two
Olivier Awards for Best Entertainment and Best Theatre Choreographer.
In addition to 'Swan Lake's' triumphant return, another Bourne favorite
is being revived as well. 'Highland Fling' will open spring of 2005 in
the UK. There is a possible tour abroad and even some talk about the production
being filmed (in the fashion of 'Swan Lake', 'The Car Man' and 'Nutcracker!').
Bourne says he plans to expand the original cast of seven to eleven and
with swings it will make a company of fifteen, affording two alternate
'Highland Fling', for those not familiar, originally premiered in 1994
and is Bourne's version of the tragic-romantic ballet 'La Sylphide.' In
his original piece, the curtain opens in a urinal in a seedy club in Glasgow
with the protagonist, James, a drug addict. The Sylph, as one of his drug-induced
hallucinations, has got an edge about her and the lure of her naughtiness
to his destructive personality make for a compelling story. While this
piece was Bourne's first endeavor at a more tragic tale, his ability to
balance out humor with pathos and drama in inventive and clever ways keeps
it, like all of his stories, well rounded and full of surprises.
Bourne says of 'Highland
Fling,' "It has always been one of the more 'dancey' pieces I've
done and for that reason alone I think there is a very strong case for
reviving it. It is also a very solid piece, one that we can keep around
in our rep for awhile and change the casting every so often to give other
people a chance to do the show."
One other note of importance in regards to 'Highland Fling' is that it
served as a genesis for many of Matthew's later pieces, according to Will
Kemp who cut his teeth as a dancer with Matthew in the original 'Swan
Lake' and has been tapped to dance the role of James.
and choreographically (that's) where the ideas came from for 'Swan Lake',
for bits of 'The Car Man', and for all the other productions past that.
Particularly 'Swan Lake' though. 'Highland Fling' has the essence that
is 'Swan Lake'."
In fact, Bourne had
thought of making the Sylph male, but later decided that the idea would
work better for 'Swan Lake'.
Lez Brotherston, who designed the first production, is back on board to
help Bourne refresh the piece.
says Matthew, "is that it is bigger and better than it was before,
but it will be a much more flexible show in terms that it doesn't have
tons and tons of set and costumes; it's more contained. It will be recorded
music and will be an adaptable piece that we can put down anywhere. We
need a piece like that to play certain venues, smaller venues that we
haven't been able to go to before. And touring has become very important.
So many think it's a lesser thing, but people are so grateful when you
come and so I try to make it work."
Also in the planning stages with a possible premiere in London autumn
of 2005, is the dance theatre version of 'Edward Scissorhands.'
Bourne says of the
show, which is subtitled 'A Cutting Edge Musical', "It's looking
good, I think, in terms of the rights getting sorted out, but it's still
in that boring stage of nearly there."
With Danny Elfman,
who scored the film version, and design-wiz Lez Brotherston as collaborators,
it is no wonder there is already a considerable amount of excitement and
anticipation for this project to get started. There has already been some
work: sections of the music have been scored and Bourne and Brotherston
have had preliminary discussions about what the piece should look like.
While it's still too early to sit down and properly cast, Will Kemp, who
was originally slated for the title role and is now juggling a dual career
of dance and film, is still eager to play the part; however nothing is
concrete. Nonetheless, as the Tim Burton film starring Johnny Depp, was
and still is a massive worldwide cult hit, it is reasonable to wager that
once the stage version does make its premiere, it may well pull in an
even larger and broader audience than did 'Swan Lake.'"
As for this very moment, Matthew is working on the musical staging of
producer Cameron Mackintosh's 'Mary Poppins,' scheduled to premiere in
London at the Prince Edward Theatre on December 15th. Bourne has dual
roles as choreographer and co-director (with Richard Eyre).
with the team that has been put together. I feel I have fallen into a
nice place within. I can put my energies where I feel I can be the most
help and I don't feel ultimately responsible for one thing. I also have
the ability to have my say about virtually everything in the show. It
is collaboration, but it is a nice position because as co-director I have
been involved in much more since the very beginning - design, developing
the script, casting. It's been a total involvement."
So what can audiences expect from this eclectic creative team?
Poppins' has an edge," says Bourne with a mischievous smile. "It's
quite different from what the audience might be expecting. There are whole
new scenes, really all taken from the book, but we've gone off in tangents
and have reinvented them in the style of Travers.
"There is a
wonderful scene with a song called 'Temper Temper'. It's when Mary Poppins
has her day off and the children are left on their own and they are very
angry about that and are shut in their room. They become quite nasty.
They're rude, they're aggressive, and they've got bad attitudes. In this
number, all the toys in their nursery come to life - really larger than
life and put the children on trial for mistreating them. They've all got
arms missing and things like that...the rag doll comes in on crutches,
she's the prize witness! It's great, it's very funny, and we've tried
to make it so that (the children) are people who will change - that Mary
Poppins has definitely got a job on her hands."
With all he's got going, Bourne still sets his sights on other possibilities.
"I'd like to do another small, limited time project, maybe at the
Donmar or the National. I think the National would be keen for me to develop
something else. I'd like to do a different kind of project within all
this; something a bit more edgy. It's just finding the time to fit that
"I'd also like to be able to properly have a rep; have the money
to employ the dancers all year round and have regular classes. I have
so many talented people working for me now; people who have reached a
point where they have a lot to give but they don't really want to be doing
big dancing roles. They are great performers and to find a show that works
for them is always of interest. I've also got the younger ones and I want
to give them as much to do to develop their dancing and to develop what
they can do."
"I'm really happy with the position that I am in now. I never dreamt
I'd be doing what I'm doing."
Still he admits he
sometimes feels like "blowing his own trumpet more in terms of the
"I want to make
sure people know about all the stuff we are doing. It's an amazing feat
when I put it into context. These great long tours, thousands and thousands
of people see these shows -- many more people than see any other dance
company's shows in this country. And yet we are still seen as not quite
serious or sort of semi-commercial; something like that. No one quite
knows where to place us. I don't know where to place us," he
But if the critical acclaim, the numerous awards, and the enthusiastic
fan base that continues to grow by leaps and bounds with every performance
are signposts as to where they are headed, then it really doesn't matter
where Matthew Bourne and his company are placed. Only the sky will be
the limit as to where they will end up.
Contact the Company:
c/o Sadlers Wells
London EC1R 4TN
Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.
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