Matthew Bourne in Conversation, Danceworks - 15th December
How did Matthew Bourne, a boy from East London, become such a celebrated choreographer? “It was always there” answered Bourne, to this huge opening question at Danceworks’ In Conversation evening. “From the age of four or five I went to see Disney movies and then tried to recreate them at home with other kids. I was usually the star, and my brother was often dressed as a woman to be my leading lady!”
Photo: Hugo Glendinning
Bourne’s parents introduced him to musical theatre and film at a young age, but he didn’t discover ballet and contemporary dance until his late teens. After leaving school, he worked in a box office, as a theatre usher and in the National Theatre bookshop. His first experience of ballet was seeing Scottish Ballet’s Swan Lake at the age of 18 or 19: “I was surprised at how the swans moved. I expected them to be ethereal but they moved very quickly. I thought it was odd and eccentric, but I loved the music. I wanted to see another Swan Lake as soon as possible, so I went to see the National Ballet of Canada’s version later that week. It was eye-opening how different the same ballet could be in different productions.”
After that, Bourne started seeing ballet and dance several times a week, as well as reading widely about the subject. At the age of 22, he applied to train at Laban and believes he was offered a place not on the basis of his audition (as he had no practical dance experience) but because of his enthusiasm in the interview. He studied on Laban’s three year degree course, focusing on choreography and dance history, and then joined Laban’s touring company, Transitions, for a fourth year.
After graduating in 1987, Bourne set up a dance company, Adventures in Motion Pictures, with some fellow students. It was funded initially through an Arts Council Encouragement Grant and weekly government enterprise allowances for people setting up new businesses. The company still exists today, under a slightly different name, as Bourne’s hugely successful New Adventures.
Bourne currently spends most of his time reviving (and revising) his existing works and only creates new pieces every 3-4 years. He has lots of ideas but always likes to create something that can be summed up in one short sentence, such as ‘Cinderella during the Blitz’ or ‘Swan Lake with male swans’. He can’t choose his favourite choreography as his works are like his children and are all special for different reasons.
Other choreographers Bourne enjoys watching are Mark Morris, Pina Bausch and Frederick Ashton. About the latter, Bourne described: “His works touch me. I get in a lovely place when I watch them. I love the variety – abstract, narrative, humour, full-length, cabaret-style.”
Despite his own focus on narrative works, Bourne tends to appreciate the more abstract choreography of others. When he does watch narrative dance, he gets frustrated when the storyline isn’t clearly conveyed. “You should be able to see the story onstage without reading it beforehand. You wouldn’t read the synopsis of a movie before you went to the cinema."
Bourne regularly receives CVs from dancers who want to join his company, but he only holds auditions once a year. “Anyone whose letter starts with ‘dear Sir’ goes straight onto the ‘no’ pile. I’m looking for dancers who want to work with me and perform my choreography. If a dancer says ‘I love your work’, they’re half way there!
“During auditions, I’m considering whether dancers can do the rep and if they show passion. Politeness also goes along way. I need dancers who can work well together as they’ll be rehearsing and touring for long periods. So I look at how dancers get along with each other.”
Bourne reads reviews of his work, but only pays attention to the critics who generally like his style of choreography. He finds, however, that positive reviews have a limited effect on box office success. In contrast, his company recently invited celebrities to attend and tweet about Edward Scissorhands, and ticket sales doubled the next day.
Bourne finished by speaking about his future plans for New Adventures. In 2015, the company is touring both nationally and internationally. Bourne is also starting to think about his next creation, which may be a version of the famous 1948 ballet film, The Red Shoes…