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Matthew Bourne
Director and Choreographer
New Adventures

by Dani Crawford

August, 2004

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 extraordinary place.

"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 in hand.

'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 casts.

'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.

"Conceptually 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.

"The idea," 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).

"I'm thrilled 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?

"This 'Mary 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 in."

"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 dance world."

"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 laughs.

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.

Related Links:

Contact the Company:
New Adventures
c/o Sadlers Wells
Rosebery Avenue
London EC1R 4TN

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

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