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In Conversation: Ballet's Matthew Bourne

Sept. 18, 2016 | By Bruce R. Feldman

The unorthodox British choreographer discusses the origins of his provocative "Swan Lake," his late start as a dancer, and how MGM musicals have influenced his work

Matthew Bourne's "Swan Lake"

Matthew Bourne occupies a singular position in the world of contemporary dance. Starting with his first large ballets – Nutcracker! and, particularly, his cutting-edge Swan Lake in which men replaced women in the role of swans – the imaginative British choreographer has earned the admiration of established critics and popular audience alike.

Over a three-decade career he has produced unconventional, spirited interpretations of classical ballets such as Cinderella, The Car Man (based on Bizet’s Carmen), and Sleeping Beauty and has choreographed the Sam Mendes 1994 revival of Oliver! with Jonathan Pryce, Trevor Nunn’s 2001 production of My Fair Lady, and Richard Eyre’s 2004 West End and Broadway hit Mary Poppins. This year, Bourne was awarded a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II.

Next spring Bourne brings his company to The Wallis in Beverly Hills to perform three of his rarely seen formative works from 1988, 1989, and 1991. In anticipation of that engagement, the ballet innovator recently spoke to an appreciative audience with The Wallis's new artistic director, Paul Crewes, at the theater’s recent open house weekend.

"And then, of course, 'Swan Lake' happened. Almost overnight everything changed."

Crewes began by asking how Bourne set out on his ballet career.

“I didn’t start dance training until I was 22,” he revealed. “Most people assume that’s when I discovered dance. But actually I discovered dance a long time before that, I just didn’t have any formal training. I was sort of self-taught.”

He amplified:

From the age of four or five, I was always putting on a show. I’ve always done it. I’ve always done what I do now. From the very beginning I’d get kids from down the street and get them to do a version of a film I’d seen from memory. There was no video in those days. You went to see Mary Poppins, or some Disney movie maybe, and then I’d try to recreate it with local kids.

I used to charge people to come and see it. I had an eye on business from a very early age. I used to drag old ladies from down the street. They had to pay to come in, and they got a free cup of tea and a biscuit.

Matthew Bourne's "Nutcracker!"

"Nutcracker!" was Bourne's first large ballet

Bourne said that his early influences came from popular culture.

The dance I knew about when I was young was movies. I loved musicals. My parents did, as well. They used to take me to see things. I started to love the dancing a little bit more.

I didn’t realize there was a thing you go and see which was just dance. That was how naïve I was about it. I didn’t have any knowledge of contemporary dance or ballet. We never even had any classical music in our house [but] we all loved music. We were always singing out loud. My dad thought he was Frank Sinatra. My mum had a terrible voice, but she used to sing anyway. I used to sing along to Barbara Streisand records and Julie Andrews. It’s true!

His introduction to classical dance came after he left school at 18 and got a job as a filing clerk at the BBC.

I decided I would go and see a ballet because I had never seen one. I wanted to see a famous one. Swan Lake, that sounds like a famous ballet, so I’ll go and see that. And that’s what I did. I saw it at Sadlers Wells, sat at the very very back at the top of the theater one afternoon.

Bourne then offered a glimpse into how he began to form his view of what dance can be:

It was a kind of a revelation in some ways, but not in the way people would think. I thought it was really odd and mysterious and eccentric. I didn’t come back going, ‘Oh, it was so beautiful.’

I thought they moved faster than I was expecting them to. I loved the fact that it was a piece of history preserved. I had never seen anything like it before. I wanted to see it again later in the week, but it wasn’t on there anymore. It was on at Covent Garden just down the road. It was Swan Lake, but it was completely different. I suppose quite quickly I realized you could do other versions of it if you wanted to.

"Mary Poppins" brought Bourne's idiosyncratic choreography to a larger audience

With no formal training, at age 22 Bourne applied to attend London’s prestigious Laban Centre for Movement and Dance.

I hadn’t done a dance class in my life at that point. My first ever dance class was the audition for that. You would think that I wouldn’t get in, would you? Goodness knows what I looked like. But I sort of thought I was quite good by that point. I had confidence, I thought, ‘I can do it.’

What I think got me in was that I was so passionate about dance in general. I had seen so much. Those years before that, once I’d seen my first ballet, I went to see every sort of dance. I went to the ballet at Sadlers Wells at least four times a week for a few years. I was very, very knowledgeable about dance. I think they thought they had a critic or a writer, not a dancer!

He formed his first company, Adventures in Motion Pictures, with dancers he met at Laban. The three ballets he will perform at The Wallis next year were created during this period.

There are people who only know us as that company that started off coming here with Swan Lake. I think that what you will see in those early pieces is the beginning of the style that is still there. It’s a fascinating thing to see where it all came from.

“You mentioned Swan Lake,” Paul Crewes interjected. “For me, for a lot of people, it redefined dance. It brought a new audience to dance. It changed the way a lot of people saw dance. Those early works were on a smaller scale. Then you went into a bigger scale of work. How did that come about?”

"For me it’s always about telling a story."

“I was quite happy running a small company, six to eight dancers,” replied Bourne.

I’ve never been ambitious. I wasn’t thinking, ‘This has got to get bigger. [Instead] I felt, ‘Wow, we’ve got a company, we’re touring, people are actually paying to come and see us.' I remember turning up to venues and saying, ‘How many people have booked?’ They’d say, ’30,’ and I’d say, ’That’s really good. Maybe we’ll have 40 or 50 by tonight.’ I loved that time.

Nutcracker! came before Swan Lake, and that’s how Swan Lake happened,. Nutcracker! was commissioned by Opera North. They wanted to recreate the program on which The Nutcracker was premiered [in Russia], which was originally with an opera called Iolanta. It was the centenary of that program. They would do the opera, and they wanted a company to do the ballet.

They thought that there were so many ballet versions around. They found this quirky company and thought that they could do something a bit different. The brief was to be different and to be intentionally an alternative to a classical ballet version. Of course we would increase our numbers. They were a big opera company and had a bigger budget than we had. We increased the company to about 22. We had a full orchestra. We did Nutcracker! from beginning to end without an interval. It was an hour and a half, the second half of the show.

That experience changed the trajectory of Bourne’s career.

It was a revelation to me, because I’d never thought of taking on any of those pieces, those big ballets. When they first asked me to do it, it seemed like such an odd idea. I knew the pieces very well [but] I never thought I would do them.

The pieces that we’re bringing here [next year] are a patchwork of ideas and episodes. This [Nutcracker!] was a piece of music that was written to tell a story. It had a particular kind of order. I liked that discipline.

Bourne's darkly romantic version of "Sleeping Beauty" premiered in 2012

The show was a hit at the Edinburgh Festival. Bourne thought he’d try to do another large production, even though his company still consisted of just six-to-eight dancers.

The idea was that we would expand to do another big ballet, and that was Swan Lake. It was going to be a project. You can take on more people, play Sadlers Wells for two weeks, do a short British tour and that would be the end of the project, and you go back to being the small company again.

And then, of course, Swan Lake happened. Almost overnight everything changed. It was an extraordinary time for us. It took off in a way that none of us expected.

Crewes wanted to know what Bourne was thinking when he set out to redefine Nutcracker! and Swan Lake.

It was really simple in some ways. If you’re taking on the famous ballets, the classical companies are there to maintain the traditional choreography. A new production will have new costumes and a different look, maybe a different era [but] the choreography stays pretty set. If you’re working with a company like mine, the choreography has to change. We’re not classical dancers. We don’t do point work. You have to redefine it. What is the story? How could I make it work for different audiences, not necessarily ballet fans but people who like dance or love musical theater. I was trying to make a piece for a wider audience. I felt that I had to make it different enough for it to stand alone against a lot of other companies that were touring Swan Lake. That’s when the male dancers playing the swans came into play.

"I get the dancers to think more like actors now, write their life stories, the sort of thing you would do if you were in a play or film. It’s unusual in a dance company."

The choreographer talked about how his love for movies and musical theater has influenced his work:

[By 1995] I’d already worked in musical theatre. I’d already done Oliver! with Sam Mendes at the Palladium and a couple of other musicals. I was a big movie fan. Often movies would come into play in how I wanted to tell the story.

Bourne explained that he based a moment in Swan Lake on something he had seen in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.

I’ve never forgotten the birds attacking. It’s actually an image in the show where the swans gather on the bed one at a time. They fly on to the big bed in the prince’s bedroom. It’s abased on a scene in The Birds where more birds appear on a climbing frame behind Tippi Hedren.

Crewes asked Bourne about the relationship between choreography and directing:

I find it difficult to separate the directing and the choreography. For me they’re the same thing. I don’t agree with dramaturges coming in to work with choreographers. That’s my job, to tell the story, to work out the story and define how I’m going to tell that to the audience. In the same way, I don’t believe in scenarios in programs that tell people what they’re going to see before they’ve watched it.

Early on I got the chance to work with some great senior directors on musicals: Trevor Nunn on My Fair Lady, Sam Mendes on Oliver! Richard Eyre on Mary Poppins. I learned a lot from working with them, seeing how they worked with actors. I brought some of that to my dance company. I get the dancers to think more like actors now, write their life stores, the sort of thing you would do if you were in a play or film. It’s unusual in a dance company.

Matthew Bourne's "Lord of the Flies"

"Lord of the Flies" was a project between Bourne's company and Re:Bourne, his charitable arm

Bourne turned the discussion to the importance of story in his work:

It’s always [about] a narrative. I like watching some abstract work because you can always read things into it. I enjoy that. It’s not the way I work, though I have abstract sections within my pieces. The swan dances in Swan Lake don’t really forward the story. But for me it’s always about telling a story.

He spoke with enthusiasm about Re:Bourne, the charitable arm of his company:

The impetus for wanting to start it initially was that, although we were doing work with young people on our tours and doing workshops accompanying the tour, I felt we could do so much more if we organized it a little bit better and not be necessarily tied to the touring.

I felt that there were a lot of young people in the audience who were particularly inspired by our work and saw in it something that they weren’t seeing elsewhere. We started Re:Bourne to encourage and work with young people with a passion for dance and performance, to get them involved more. We also have a choreography award now which was a 50th birthday present from all the members of my company and [some] colleagues. They put together a fund. Every other year we give a choreography award and showcase a choreographer’s work.

"I don’t believe in scenarios in programs that tell people what they’re going to see before they’ve watched it."

Crewes asked about his time at the Laban Centre.

It was good that I came to the training later in life. If I had started very early, my choreography would not have been the same. My experience of other things [than dance] goes into the work now to make it more accessible. [I am talking about] cultural references that people understand. Whereas if I had started dancing at the age of five, maybe my choreography would be about movement, which it is for a lot of choreographers. It’s more about movement exploration. For me it became much more obvious to want to entertain an audience and tell them a story. That’s my instinct.

Bourne fielded a few questions from the audience.

How much do you get involved with the visual aspects of the production?

We never do something where the curtain goes up and there’s nothing there! It’s always a big set. Lots of costumes and quick changes. If [the dancers are] not on stage, they’re doing a quick change. I don’t like people being lazy in the wings.

What exactly was your involvement with the film Billy Elliot?

I do have a connection with Billy Elliot. I was sent the script two years before it was made. The end scene had Billy growing up to be the prince in Swan Lake at Covent Garden. I felt a little disappointed. I didn’t want him to be the prince in Swan Lake. It wasn’t the lead. It wasn’t a good end to the story.

I wrote a note on the script: ‘Wouldn’t it be good if he were a bit more of a rebel?’ There was a famous contemporary rebel choreographer called Michael Clark in the UK. Someone like that or maybe the swan in our Swan Lake.

Two years later when Stephen Daldry was making the movie he came to us and asked if he could film the last section [with our company]. We happened to be on tour with Swan Lake. Adam Cooper who created the part wasn’t dancing with us at that time, but he came back to do that moment in the film. It’s only a moment, but it’s so memorable. People never forget that leap into the air in the end and the father’s reaction. It’s so wonderful, so moving.

"The dance I knew about when I was young was movies. I loved musicals."

What about movie musicals, tell us more about how they have influenced your work.

My parents loved, particularly, MGM musicals. That’s always been the pinnacle for me for dance on film. I read some books about the studio. If you didn’t have a particular talent, they gave it to you. If you couldn’t dance, you’d learn how to dance. If you couldn’t sing, they’d try and make you sing. Everyone got more skilled.

I’ve thought about that with my own company. I’m bringing a lot of dancers into my company who have not acted before. So, you teach them. It’s a similar thing [to MGM].

Those movies I go back to again and again for inspiration more than anything else. What choreographers and dancers like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire did [was] they made it so acceptable, especially to see men dancing. They made the world fall in love with dancing. It will never be repeated.

What are you doing next?

We’re planning on a new production [of Swan Lake]. We’re going to update it, because it’s been going for 20 years now. We’re going to freshen it up and give it some new life.

And finally: How do you select the stories you base your dances on

[It’s] not always classical pieces, sometimes it’s a film or book. I’ve run out of most big ballet scores. You have to come up with different ideas to base the stories on. My next production is based on The Red Shoes. What we have to do is weave in more dance opportunities for not just the dances performed in the piece but also the emotional story of the piece. It’s a challenge.

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