Matthew Bourne: “I Want to Entertain People.”

Words by
Mark Monahan
Photography by
Johan Persson

26th November 2022

Matthew Bourne’s subversive choreography has entranced audiences for decades. Currently restaging The Sleeping Beauty at Sadler’s Wells, Mark Monahan meets Bourne and finds he has lost none of his passion for edgy re-imaginings of the classics.

I’ve always been very audience-conscious in making work,” says dance-theatre supremo Matthew Bourne. “I want to entertain people.”

This impulse has served the 62-year-old Londoner magnificently for 30 years. In fact, no choreographer-producer alive has done more to breathe sparkling new life into old stories, and done so with such affectionate, intelligent irreverence.

It was Bourne and his company New Adventures (formerly Adventures in Motion Pictures, or AMP) who in 2000 remoulded Carmen and The Postman Always Rings Twice into The Car Man (recently revived to spectacular effect at the Royal Albert Hall); who transformed a mostly forgotten 1960s film, The Servant, into another almost ludicrously sexy new stage work, Play Without Words (2002); and who dared to take two much-loved films — Edward Scissorhands and The Red Shoes — and convert them into hit dance-works (in 2005 and 2016).

Photo by Johan Persson
Matthew Ball as The Swan in Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake

However, it’s his transformations of the great Russian ballets that Bourne remains most famous. In 1997, he transported Cinderella to Blitz-torn London, and in 2019 had Prokofiev’s other balletic masterpiece, Romeo and Juliet, play out in a sinister institute for “difficult” children. Nutcracker! (1992) was a kaleidoscopic 100th-anniversary reworking of that 1892 Christmas favourite; in 1995, his Swan Lake made headlines — and pretty much redefined ballet — by making all the waterfowl not modestly tutu-clad women but bare-chested men. And in 2012, Bourne finally completed his Tchaikovsky triptych by entirely overhauling The Sleeping Beauty.

Ten years after that premiere, and seven since he last revived it, it is Sleeping Beauty that Bourne is now restaging — it is this season’s big festive offering at Sadler’s Wells, and is touring nationwide until spring 2023. Spanning from 1890 to the present day, it sees Princess Aurora now enamoured of the gamekeeper, Leo, but also lusting after the dashing son of the dark fairy Carabosse. As for the traditionally sweetness-and-light Lilac Fairy, both she, and her acolytes, now have a curious yen for the night and alarmingly sharp teeth.

Photo by Johan Persson
Matthew Bourne's The Car Man

Audiences are likely to flock all over again — but what, I wonder, is it like for Bourne to be returning to this particular piece? “It’s great to have it back,” he says, “because it’s a show that really pushed us in many ways dance-wise. I think it upped the ante a little bit for the company 10 years ago, and it’s nice to be able to bring that back to a different generation of dancers, because it’s so varied in dance styles.”

So what sort of dance can newcomers to the show expect? “Each act has a different ‘period’,” says Bourne, “and almost a different way of performing. It starts off in the balletic world, Act I, and then, in Act II,  it’s the ‘Edwardian manners’, as we call it. Then, the ‘vision’ scene is very free, very contemporary, and then the final act is also contemporary, but more dangerous, more dynamic, more in-your-face.”

Photo by Johan Persson
Matthew Bourne's Early Adventures The Infernal Galop Tom Clark

When I last spoke to Bourne, in the run-up to last summer’s restaging of The Car Man, he told me that some of its darker scenes and roles had to be approached more delicately because of the new, younger generation of dancers’ more (some might uncharitably say) “snowflakey” expectations. Is there, I wonder, anything in his Sleeping Beauty that he may have to address differently now? “I think much less so in this one. I mean,” he says, “we have had someone turn it down for religious reasons, because it seems to represent some pact with the devil in the last scene, a kind of coven of vampiric fairies. I thought that was a bit of  an extreme response.” He laughs. “You never know what you’re going to come up against these days, I tell you!”

Easy, buoyant company, and not the least bit starry, Bourne is, in fact, very much in favour of the newly discursive way of doing things; that is, walking dancers more carefully through roles and scenes that they might find ideologically troubling. He has less patience, however, with one dance school’s recent decision to drop ballet from auditions on the grounds of inclusivity.

Photo Johan Persson
Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker with Monique Jonas as Princess Sugar

“It’s very difficult to comment, in some ways, because I don’t really know what that means,” he says. “What’s the expectation of someone in an audition, for a start? You’re looking for potential in auditions, aren’t you, so I think it was a lot of stuff and nonsense about nothing really. I think what they’re trying to do, but rather clumsily handled, was to attract and encourage young people who have a passion for dance but not necessarily a particular style, and that’s about encouraging people from different cultures, different ethnicities. You can absolutely understand where it’s coming from, but it’s just a rather silly way of approaching it, I think.”

Bourne now lives in a swish corner of Islington, north London, with his partner Arthur Pita (also a successful creator of dance-theatre). But he was born a few miles further east, in Hackney, which in 1960 was emphatically not the latte-fancying locale it is now. Although neither of his parents was professionally involved in either music or theatre, they loved both. “It was a house full of music,” says Bourne. “Everyone sang all the time.” They regularly took the young Matthew out “to see all sorts of things”, and he was soon going to see plays and musicals by himself. And not only that. “I liked to put on shows from a very early age,” he explains. “And, right from when I was a little kid, I was always calling it the ‘something’ company —
I realise that I’d always had this very strong feeling about having companies. I used to get kids down the street to be in one of my shows. They tended to be little revues, or recreations of films I’d seen.”

What sort of films? “I was a big Mary Poppins fan. The Sound of Music. Julie Andrews was, you know...  I used to kiss the album cover of The Sound of Music before I went to bed, the picture of her on the back.” He laughs again. “I loved her!”

Comprehensive school in nearby Walthamstow led to a series of unremarkable jobs that carried him into his late twenties. But at 21, Bourne successfully went for a place at the Trinity Laban music and dance school — an audition that, astonishingly, was this hitherto self-taught dancer’s first ever dance class. “I thought I was quite good!

It was only when I got there that I realised  I had a lot to learn.” Bourne’s self-belief was, however, clearly justified. He formed AMP in 1986, staged the company’s first show in 1987, and has since had an almost unbroken run of hits, snaffling an OBE (in 2001) and a knighthood (in 2016) and becoming a consistent darling of critics and public alike, not to mention a rich man. 

Photo by Johan Persson
Matthew Bourne's The Red Shoes with Ashley Shaw as Victoria Page

Looking back, which of his own shows, I wonder, are his “desert island” ones? “I like them all,” he says, “for different reasons. The show I like doing the most now, weirdly, is Early Adventures” — a compendium of three delightfully mischievous pieces he created between 1989 and 1991. “Those early shows have a lot of nostalgia for me, but every one has been special, otherwise I wouldn’t bring them back.”

If he suddenly found himself appointed British Culture Tsar, what’s the first thing he would do? “Culture Tsar?” he replies jovially. “My god! Well, I would enable touring to happen a lot more widely, to reach more people. When I think of the things that influenced me and got me excited as a young kid, I was living in London and I had access to so much. Touring has become more and more difficult. I think that’s the thing that I would try and do the most about, to get work seen as widely as possible. And,” he concludes, “and not watered-down work, you know — the best!”

Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty is at Sadler’s Wells, London EC1, from 29 November 2022 to 15 January 2023 

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