As a dancer, Matthew Bourne was a late bloomer, not starting to train until the ripe old age of 22. But once he found his calling, he made swift progress.
When still in his twenties, he founded his own dance company, which became Adventures in Motion Pictures. As AMP artistic director and choreographer, Bourne and his producer Katharine Dore were the driving force behind the most successful modern ballets. These included such bold reinventions of dance classics as Nutcracker, Highland Fling, Cinderella, The Car Man (based on Carmen and most significantly, the all-male Swan Lake, which in 1997, became the West End's longest-running ballet ever and which continues to tour internationally.
Swan Lake also ranks up amongst one of modern dance's most lauded productions, collecting more than 25 international awards, including an Olivier, Time Out Award, The South Bank Show Award, LA Critics Circle and Dramalogue Awards, NY Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards and two 1999 Tony Awards for Best Direction and Best Choreography.
In a freelance capacity, Bourne has also choreographed a number of high-profile musical theatre productions, including: Children of Eden, Oliver! and, with Trevor Nunn at the National Theatre, both My Fair Lady and South Pacific.
In August 2001, after nearly 15 years, Bourne left AMP and formed his own company, New Adventures, with the aim of producing, or co-producing, a wide range of works including large and small-scale theatre presentations. His first New Adventures production, mounted as part of the National Theatre's Transformation season, was the premiere of Play Without Words, which has been nominated for two Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers' Choice Awards - Best Ensemble Performance and Best Choreographer.
His second New Adventures offering is a reworking of his 1992 Nutcracker!, which is currently playing an extended Christmas season at London's Sadler's Wells before touring around the country to 14 further venues until 24 May 2003.
(Matthew Bourne is pictured at our sold-out December Outing to Nutcracker! at Sadler’s Wells where 200 Whatsonstage.com theatregoers had the opportunity to meet and speak to him - and get his autograph! - at our post-show reception.)
Date & place of birth
Born 13 January 1960 in north London.
The Laban Centre for Movement and Dance.
First big break
I suppose everyone else would say Swan Lake - that's certainly the one that got me international recognition - but I think there have been lots along the way. Nutcracker!, the first time round, was a big break. That was the first full evening, large-scale production I did and was quite a turning point.
Career highlights to date
There have been so many really. The whole Broadway experience was great in many ways. It wasn't what I expected it to be, but I had lots of ambitions fulfilled then. Performing on Broadway was something I never thought I'd do. And to receive two Tonys on one night was incredible. I remember, in the Best Director category, I was up against Harold Prince amongst other people. When I got up to make my speech, he was sitting directly in my eyeline, looking quite miserable. That was a big moment. A less obvious highlight for me was doing Cinderella in Los Angeles. I loved that because it was a chance to rework it and make it into the show I wanted it to be. It's also been very special meeting so many of my heroes along the way. All the big MGM stars especially, like Cyd Charisse, Ann Miller and Roddy McDowell.
Obviously the people I work with on a regular basis, many of whom have been with me for a long time and have been very loyal. As far as my heroes, it would have to be Fred Astaire and all those wonderful MGM stars. I look back on their films to inspire me. It's such a corny thing to say, but I really don't think we have anyone around today as good as they were.
Lots. Susan Stroman is very good, particularly when she's doing big numbers of three or four minutes in a musical. With her numbers, things are changing all the time on stage and she's very good with props - it's all very fun. I think Peter Darling is underrated; he works well with actors. As for those not in the theatre world, Mark Morris I like very much. And old Fred again.
I really enjoyed working with Trevor Nunn. I felt we worked together well in that we contributed a great deal to what the other did so it felt very unified. I like that he wanted a wider vision and that he shared his with me. That's the way I always want to work. As a choreographer, I don't like to just be given numbers to come up with in isolation. There are many other younger directors I admire - like Matthew Warchus, Michael Grandage and Stephen Daldry. We are rich in brilliant directors in this country.
Favourite musical writers
I'm a big fan of all the great Golden Age songwriting teams: Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter and those, I've loved from a very early age. I've been working on a new score with Danny Elfman and I do love his music, too.
Does your work for theatre differ from that for dance?
I do approach it a little differently, but not as much as people would think. I use the talents of the performer, whether they're a dancer or not. If I've got an actor who's not a dancer, I work with them to find their instinct for movement. For instance, Jonathan Pryce (My Fair Lady) is a very good mover but you couldn't tie him to steps. You use that. The work comes through the piece and the story you're trying to tell.
How do you approach a classic ballet with a view to reinventing it?
It's completely through the music; that's the first thing. I try to be true to the music. People may think that's odd and against what a piece is about, but if the ideas come from the music, you're on the right track. I play the music for hours on end, walking around with a walkman, on the Underground, everywhere; and just listen and try to feel something that hasn't been recognised before. I also wipe away from my mind any memories of versions I've seen and instead look at the basic plot and try to pare it down to what it's really about. What is the essence? Then I try to find a modern parallel. The stories always tend to be very simplistic - mythical - so it's easy to invent them in different ways.
What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre & dance?
More money, which I suppose is what everyone's going to say. Even being in the lucky position that I'm in, still it's always about money when you're trying to get things on. No one in the performing arts business can be in it for the money. Dance in particular is one of the worst paid areas of entertainment. The right encouragement for young dancers and choreographers is lacking. I think it's important to get a grant system going again so those people can get to the dance colleges and train. For a while, the colleges were full of foreign students - no one in this country could afford to go because there were no grants. That's changing and seems to be going in the right direction again now.
If you hadn't become involved in dance, what would you have done professionally?
I started off selling theatre tickets for Keith Prowse so I might have continued along that route and become a bitter 40-year-old in a box office somewhere. I knew for a long time that I wanted to do something with entertainment but I couldn't pinpoint exactly what that was. At one time, I thought I'd be good at casting because I had such a wide knowledge of actors. I was an obsessive autograph collector from the age of 14 to 17. I went to every first night, hung out outside hotels and wrote to lots of people. I had letters back from some incredible stars, including Charlie Chaplin, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. I've built up an amazing collection - probably 1,500 autographs. Some are quite rare and they're all very precious to me. I still collect autographs sometimes now, though more discreetly. As a dancer, I kept a visitors' book in my dressing room.
What's the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
The Vortex at the Donmar Warehouse. I love Coward and I've seen the piece before, but this production was fascinating because of the casting. I'm not sure it completely worked, but the performances were wonderful. I thought, like some critics, that it would have been good if Chiwetel Ejiofor and Mark Umbers had swapped roles. Not because of the colour thing but just that the other roles would have suited them better. But Francesca Annis was great, absolutely perfect for the part of the mother.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Peter Ackroyd and Patrick McGrath are my favourite two authors of the moment. I'm really looking forward to the film release of McGrath's Spider, starring Ralph Fiennes and Miranda Richardson.
Favourite holiday destinations
I've got a little place I bought in Brighton so I go there quite a lot. Strangely, I also really like Los Angeles and Santa Monica in California. I always have such a great time when we're performing there.
Favourite after-show haunts
All the usual ones, like Soho House and Joe Allen's. In London, Joe Allen's is still really good and friendly. It's not so good in New York anymore.
Whatsonstage.com is one I go into every day and I subscribe to the newsletter. I also go to Playbill.com for what's happening in New York and to Ballet.co.uk for all the dance news and reviews. I never read my own reviews, but I like reading ones for other people's shows.
How much does this Nutcracker! differ from your 1992 production?
It's the same basic concept, but it's all been redesigned and 80% re-choreographed. We've tried to keep the charm of the original, which people remember fondly. That's easy to lose if you put in things you think you should for logical reasons. So we wanted to keep the spirit and fun and not bog it down with angst, but at the same time, make it a stronger story and use what I've learned in the past ten years about storytelling without words.
And what are the main differences to the story from the original ballet?
It's got a story for one! A very big big difference, too, is setting the opening in the orphanage. That was my first instinct. The Christmases you see in most Nutcrackers are very opulent, which I felt, for most kids, was already a fantasy. That makes it difficult to go from there into another fantasy. I thought, if it started someplace where you had a very sad Christmas, where you felt for the characters, the journey would be more bittersweet and better. I also felt that sadness and that yearning in the music. So when the characters break out of the orphanage, you feel the exhilaration. The skating scene - originally the Dance of the Snowflakes - is also a new invention, inspired by the great Sonja Henie.
What's your favourite scene in Nutcracker!?
I love when the ventriloquist's dummy turns into a life-sized man but is still a dummy with the hinges and movements. I always find those dolls creepy and they look kind of like a nutcracker. The scene is inspired by the 1945 film Dead of Night with Michael Redgrave. The toy becomes almost like a Frankenstein monster. Kids love to be scared and they are when the dummy comes to life. It's my favourite bit in many ways.
How integral are the set & lighting designs to this production?
In a piece that's about fantasy, the design becomes crucial. It completely creates the world. In many ways, a show like Nutcracker! (for which Anthony Ward designed) is a designer's showcase. It's really exciting to create fantasy characters; it's all imagination - and more exciting for the designer than dressing another Shakespeare. As the director and choreographer, you work really closely with the designer on creating that world. Lighting is also so important and so underrated. It can completely reveal a production to you. Most people watching don't understand that. If it's good, you don't notice the lighting - you just see what the director wants you to see with the right mood and evocation. Even in reviews, lighting is usually only mentioned when it's ostentatious or done badly. But I prefer when it's subtle and clever. It can make or break a production. Howard Harrison has done the lighting for Nutcracker!. I think it's his first proper dance production and he's done a very good job.
The sweets in Sweetieland really come to life in your production. What's your favourite confection?
I don't really have a sweet tooth, especially not after working on this show. If I go out to dinner, I'll tend to order a starter rather than a sweet. Since the age of 30, I've also had to start watching my weight so I've made myself stop eating puddings. I just say no.
What are your plans for the future?
It's been quite exciting doing two shows this year - one large scale (Nutcracker!) and one smaller, more experimental work (Play Without Words) - with my new company and they couldn't have gone better. So I'm leaving things quite open at the moment.
I've withdrawn (as director and choreographer) from Disney's stage adaptation of The Little Mermaid. I've already been doing it for two years, and it was going to take up so much more time over the next two years with workshops and readings and casting. Things are going so well with New Adventures, I didn't want to give up on this company at this point. The designer Lez Brotherston has also withdrawn - we came as a team. It's giving up a lot because it's going to be a huge production, like The Lion King. I wish I could have that commercial sensibility that some others have and think, well, I'll do this for the money so that I can do all the other things I want later. But I can only work on things I really feel something for. Disney have been fine about it, though, and I would love to do something with them in the future. I just wasn't able to give Mermaid the time they wanted and I think they recognised that.
Because of that, though, I may be able to move Edward Scissorhands forward properly now. In 2003, I plan to disappear in many ways. We'll bring Nutcracker! back and hopefully Play Without Words, too, but we won't do any new productions. I want to spend the year thinking a lot and developing ideas.
When I was still with AMP, we planned to have a resident company at the Old Vic. I don't think it would really work at the Old Vic, but it's still something I would love to do one day. To have a truly resident company, with full-time contracts and an ongoing repertory, developing dancers in different roles throughout the year - that would be a dream. As it is, I work with the same dancers a lot, but mostly we do one show, travelling around, for a long time and then we do another show for a long time. To have a proper repertory and an actual physical base - I'd give up anything else in my career to be able to do that. It would make me very happy. I keep putting the idea out there, but so far no one has offered to put up the money to make it possible.
- Matthew Bourne was speaking to Terri Paddock
Nutcracker! has extended to 1 February 2003 at London's Sadler's Wells, after which it will embark on a ten-week UK tour visiting Plymouth, Newcastle, Wycombe, Milton Keynes, Woking, Edinburgh, Norwich, Birmingham, Stoke, Leeds, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Sheffield and Nottingham.