Matthew Bourne, the man who reinvented dance theatre, on his journey from Deptford to Broadway. Words by Victoria Purcell
Most people, when they hear the name Matthew Bourne, probably think of Swan Lake – those moody, male swans stomping all over any expectations of delicate female dancers en pointe. But my mind always steals away to Deptford, a place better known for its gritty streets than tutus. But this is where Bourne’s dreams became a reality, for he is a Trinity Laban alumnus. Despite a complete lack of dance training, the man who is now the UK’s leading name in contemporary dance-theatre, won a place at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in 1982 to study Dance Theatre and Choreography.
Fast forward some 30 years and I’m at Sadler’s Well’s talking to him about his latest touring production, The Car Man – one of a string of award-winning productions he has launched during his much-lauded career. But more on that later; I’m after the dirt on Deptford.
The Deptford Days
‘We all worked incredibly hard,’ says Bourne. ‘I was one of the first students to do a BA in Dance and there was a lot of trying to justify dance as an academic subject at that time,’ he continues. ‘We were often sitting up late drinking lots of coffee altogether in someone’s digs, trying to do an essay, then we had to get up early to do class and to choreograph.
‘I remember staying on a place called Friendly Street, which apparently had the highest crime rate in London,’ he laughs. ‘It was a crazy time, but you look back on it and it’s all really good and fun and we made good friends and I loved it.
‘There was a whole scene in dance and comedy around there. We used to go and watch Vic Reeves at Goldsmiths Tavern and Julian Clary used to perform at a pub down the road – he was at Goldsmiths. A lot of dance companies started around that time and I was inspired by people in the years above me who were performing in pubs. It was a great place to be back then.’
Born to put on a show
Bourne had spent much of his childhood recreating shows he’d seen, cajoling his family into helping with the staging – his mother sewed costumes (and still casts her eye over the wardrobe for his new productions), his father was on set design and his brother acted and sang. As a teenager, he developed a love of theatre, and he still hops on to the bus from his Islington home to the West End when he has some downtime.
‘I was brought up in the East End, E17, and like my mum before me, I loved West End theatre. I used to come on the 38 bus through this route, past Sadler’s Wells [where his company, New Adventures, is based] many times after school. We used to go to opening nights and watch people going to film premieres and that kind of thing.’
He was destined for the stage, it seems, and he danced professionally for 14 years (two of those with Trinity Laban’s Transitions Dance Company). He set up his first company Adventures in Motion Pictures (AMP), together with fellow directors Emma Gladstone and David Massingham, in 1987. AMP launched a new production practically every year – including Nutcracker!, Oliver!, the groundbaking, male-dominated Swan Lake and Cinderella – until 2002. He then launched his second company, New Adventures, with his co-director, Robert Noble.
The Car Man
New Adventures, now the most successful dance company in the UK (which also regularly takes shows to Broadway), is about to take The Car Man, a reinterpretation of Bizet’s Carmen, on tour. The company has applied its usual dose of grit and theatre to the production, setting in a grubby 60s American diner. The arrival of a handsome stranger sends ripples of greed, lust, betrayal and revenge through the small town. It’s dangerous, dirty and hot. But the music is as glorious as traditionalists might hope.
‘It honours the music,’ he says. ‘The music for me is like the script, that’s the important thing, so I don’t mess around with it much, I’m quite respectful of the actual piece, so you still gain a bit of respect from those people who love the piece. If you’re working with much-loved material, you don’t want to do them the same as they’ve been done before, but you sort of want to please the people who love them as well as bring in a new audience. It’s getting that balance right, which comes down to instinct.’
It’s the second time the production has toured, but initially Bourne was hesitant to take on the much adored and often reproduced Carmen. What was it that changed his mind?
‘The thing that made me go for it was the decision to create our own story,’ he says, ‘to use the music and the feeling of Carmen, but tell a different story. It’s a thriller with twists and turns. It starts off being based on a famous movie and book, The Postman Always Rings Twice, then we take it on its own journey.
‘It’s a real raunchy, exiting piece of theatre,’ he continues. ‘It’s the piece that challenges the dancers the most dramatically. It’s a whole new company coming into it and every time I get a new generation of dancers I think it’d be great for them to be challenged by parts that they’ve never done before.
‘When we first did it in 2000, it was in reaction to things we’d been doing at that time. We’d been doing Swan Lake quite a lot and all the women were playing princesses and the men were playing swans. And we’d just done Cinderella. So I was just trying to do something that was a bit closer to them as people, more raw.’
‘I’m a tinkerer’
Bourne certainly puts his dancers through their paces (‘I like to keep them busy. I like them to have a good workout during the show’), but he works himself pretty hard too, reassessing, revamping and perfecting his productions afresh each time they head out on tour.
‘I’m a tinkerer. Many directors hang on to original casts, and as much as I love my original casts, I do enjoy recreating with new people, making it work for them and using their particular talents. I’ve changed a lot over the years as well, it’s not just that I want to change the pieces, it’s because I think about them differently. It all happens in the rehearsals, it’s all organic.’
One can’t help but wonder if this constant tinkering has led to a kind of Swan Lake fatigue. Since its world premiere in 1995, the production has become the longest running ballet in the West End and on Broadway.
‘It usually goes to bed for quite a long time, it has four or five year gaps, and then it feels all fresh again. Luckily we’ve got a big enough repertoire to do that, to bring them back every four or five years. I never do them to the point where you get any kind of fatigue. You’ve got to want to get excited about it again.’
The Car Man plays at The Churchill Theatre, Bromley, from 16-18 April, New Wimbledon Theatre from 21-25 April and Sadler’s Wells from 14 July-9 August. To book tickets (priced from £16.90), see new-adventures.net/the-car-man