Bourne dances in Town and Country (1991)
Once upon a time there was a little duckling who became a beautiful swan. Matthew Bourne’s journey from a small-time outsider to a mainstream player enjoying awfully big adventures is like one of his own fables of transformation.
Born in 1960 in east London, Matthew Bourne was a stage-door regular and autograph hunter as a kid. He directed his own mini-musicals at school but didn’t take his first dance class until he was 22. In 1987 he co-founded a small company called Adventures in Motion Pictures (AMP), which performed “arty farce” – modern choreography with a light comic touch.
In 1992 Bourne created a version of The Nutcracker for Opera North; it became his largest and most successful production to date. The Nutcracker was the first of several classics to be given a Bourne makeover, with the choreographer adding a shot of modern irony, plenty of in-jokes, and a hefty dose of old-fashioned feeling. By far the best known of the Bourne revamps is Swan Lake (1995), with its all-male chorus of swans, which became a phenomenal international hit.
AMP broke up after enjoying further successes with Cinderella and The Car Man (a souped-up Carmen). In 2002 Bourne founded his current company, New Adventures, which continues as his main creative outlet. He has also had hits with musicals (he choreographed Mary Poppins, Oliver!, My Fair Lady) and in theatre (he devised Play Without Words at the National Theatre). Bourne is among the world’s best-known choreographers and probably has the broadest audience of them all.
Watching Matthew Bourne
Part of the fun of watching a Bourne production is in spotting the references. Some of them are from the dance world, but many come from classic cinema (Hollywood musicals, film noir) or popular culture (celebrity gossip, period fashions).
Bourne loves to communicate with audiences. He is very good at imagery and comic timing but the story always comes first. No matter how ironic or camp they are, his pieces often contain a deep-felt human fable about transformation or tragedy.
Set designer Lez Brotherston is Bourne’s frequent artistic partner. Composer Terry Davies is another regular collaborator, and Bourne’s musicals have been produced in partnership with Cameron Mackintosh. Two of Bourne’s trusted dancers from the early years of the company – Scott Ambler and Etta Murfitt – are now associate directors of New Adventures.
Matthew Bourne’s company has performed Swan Lake more times since 1995 than the Royal Ballet has in its entire history.
In his own words
“My skill is as a director of stories, not movement for its own sake. I’d get bored if I was doing abstract dance.” – Interview with Peter Conrad, the Observer, 2000
“I came from an odd route, really, and I feel that’s been my saving grace. That strange beginning has helped me connect with more people.” – Interview with Lewis Segal, Los Angeles Times, 2006
In other words
“At heart, he is still the eight-year-old kid who staged Mary Poppins from memory with all his mates … He may have matured into a consummate professional, but he hasn’t outgrown his fantasies.” – Judith Mackrell, the Guardian, 2002
“Bourne is the most audience-conscious artist I have ever spoken to, or the one most willing to admit to that concern. In his view, he owes it to his audience to make his stories completely understandable.” – Joan Acocella, New Yorker, 2007
“You represent the past, present and future of dance” – Shirley MacLaine (just one of many celebrity endorsements at the New Adventures website
“I don’t usually go in for this dance malarkey, but that was brilliant.”
(Well, that’s what my dad said. He speaks for many.)
“He’s better at drama than at steps.”
It may be true, but if Bourne hears it one more time he might keel over and die of boredom.
Fred Astaire and Frederick Ashton are two of Bourne’s heroes. But to get the true Bourne flavour, you should look beyond dance and towards film and theatre especially.
Now watch this
Where to see him next
See the New Adventures website for performance dates.