Bourne to dance

Dancer and choreographer Matthew Bourne, creator of the critically-acclaimed all-male Swan Lake, wonders where the time has gone. This year he is celebrating 25 years as a dance professional and is combining three of his earliest works to create a touring show, Early Adventures, which DanceEast is bringing to the Ipswich Regent at the end of the month.

Matthew said he has always had a theatrical and narrative element to his work, having spent much of his teenage years not attending dance school but absorbing as much theatre as he could find.

“I loved the theatre,” he says, “when I was a teenager. I lived it. I used to wait outside theatres for the cast to come out. I went round to the stage door, looking for autographs. The theatre was a bewitching place for me.”

Unlike any of his contemporaries Matthew Bourne did not attend any dance training academy or ballet school. He went to William Fitt and Sir George Monoux School in Walthamstow, London, before securing a number of clerical jobs upon leaving school.

“I did a number of jobs while I sorted out my future. I was a filing clerk for the BBC, I sold tickets for Keith Prowse ticket agency and I was an usher and a member of the bookshop staff at the National Theatre.

“I did anything to keep myself in touch with the theatre.”

Despite his lack of formal dance training, Matthew started directing young dance companies, which led him to enrol at the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance in 1982.

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He graduated three years later with a BA in Dance Theatre – an important distinction for his work that followed. Upon graduation Matthew hit the ground running and with friends Emma Gladstone and David Massingham set up his first company, Adventures in Motion Pictures.

He quickly developed a reputation not only as an innovative and daring director and choreographer but as someone who put the audience at the heart of the work.

In addition to the all-male Swan Lake he created a wide variety of works for his company, including Deadly Serious, Nutcracker!, Highland Fling, Cinderella and The Car Man.

For 14 years he danced in many of this own productions, before retiring from the stage in 1999. His final performance was playing The Private Secretary in the Broadway production of Swan Lake.

It is this period that Matthew is seeking to rediscover with his latest show. Looking back at the last 25 years, Matthew admits it has disappeared in a bit of a blur.

“It was a bit of an eye-opener remounting three of my early works for the tour. It really brought home to me how quickly time has gone. It doesn’t seem that long ago but indeed 25 years have passed.”

Matthew Bourne is remounting three early pieces – Spitfire, The Infernal Galop and Town and Country – to create a new evening of work called Early Adventures.

“Looking back, I realise that you learn something about yourself – particularly when you have to remount something with other people. People forget that originally I danced in these pieces as well, so they contain a wealth of memories for me.”

In reviving the work, he realises he has changed as a choreographer. Before, he modelled many of the pieces on his own body and his own performance style, whereas now he is more open to new ideas and experiments more. “Going back to these old pieces has been quite liberating in a way. It’s made me want to try more small-scale stuff again. Also, I love performing in smaller, mid-scale venues because the interaction with the audience is so much more immediate.

“Also, audiences tend to be warmer and the atmosphere is great. I have been doing the big tours for so long now – and I do love them – but I had forgotten how special performing in more intimate spaces can be.”

The three pieces illustrate Matthew’s quirky take on the world. Spitfire was Bourne’s first hit, in 1988. It hilariously places the most famous 19th Century ballet showstopper in the world of men’s underwear advertising.

The Infernal Galop was inspired by icons of France in the 1930s and 1940s. This is France as seen by the uptight English imagination, with all the traditional clich�s joyously paraded for the audience’s entertainment and climaxing in Offenbach’s inevitable Can-Can!

Town and Country, from 1991, gave Bourne and his company their first Olivier nomination. Remembered as the piece that crystallized the Bourne style – gloriously witty and ironic, but also strangely moving and heartfelt – it explores notions of national character from a bygone era through the evocative music of Edward Elgar, Noel Coward and Percy Grainger, among others.

“Most performers enjoy the experience of working in an intimate space. It allows them to connect with their audience in a very direct way.

“It’s very lonely performing on a big stage in a big theatre. What most people don’t realise is that you can’t see anyone. You are dancing to a big, black void.

“At a smaller venue you can actually see the audience, which is what you want. You want to be able to see the people you are dancing for. You are connecting with your audience.”

He has tried to resist the temptation to re-choreograph the pieces and wants to present them in a similar manner to how they were originally conceived.

“The point of reviving them was to offer me and the audience an opportunity to look back and see where my work had come from.

“If I re-worked them or re-choreographed then that would ruin the reason for doing it in the first place. I tried to keep them as pure as possible, but we have a new generation of dancers performing them, so it’s bound to be a little bit different.”

The surprising aspect of the project for him has been the opportunity to do some unwitting forensic choreography.

“What I didn’t realise when I came to do this is how much of my work had its origins in these early pieces. As I have been working on them I keep seeing bits and pieces which I have taken and developed further in later works.

“There were certain movements that then went into Swan Lake and there were numerous things which I saw which made me realise that I owe an awful lot to these early pieces.”

He said that 25 years in the dance business is a major milestone and he wanted to look back at where he had come from, while at the same time focussing his attention on the future.

“For many people they haven’t had the opportunity to see much of this early work. Only Town and Country exists on a scratchy old video, so no-one has seen any of these pieces for a very long time.

“I thought it would be fitting not only to revisit the early work but also go back to some of the cities and towns that we used to go to in the early days, that we can’t go to now. It would be a great way to celebrate and thank some of the venues that championed us early on.”

He added that while looking back it was important that he and his current company, New Adventures, look ahead. They are currently working on a new production of Sleeping Beauty, which will open later this year.

Bourne dissolved Adventures in Motion Pictures in 2002 and created the new company, which was designed to build upon his previous successes.

During this period he created a new dance work, Edward Scissorhands, based on the classic Tim Burton film, and Play Without Words, which was part of the National Theatre’s transformations season and, after winning the Best Entertainment and Choreography awards at the Olivier’s, went on a worldwide tour. He then went on to turn Oscar Wilde’s story of Dorian Gray into a ballet. In 2006 Matthew Bourne was invited to become resident artist at Sadler’s Wells and New Adventures became the resident company.

In addition to work for his own outfit, Matthew leapt at the opportunity to work in the world of musical theatre, taking up offers to choreograph big West End productions like Cameron Macintosh’s revival of Oliver!, Sir Trevor Nunn’s re-staging of My Fair Lady, the National Theatre’s production of South Pacific and he co-directed, with Richard Eyre, the West End hit Mary Poppins.

In terms of inspiration he has always kept an open mind. “I was never inspired just by dance. In fact I didn’t start dance training until I was 22, which is very old for a dancer, but I was always putting on shows – even from the age of four or five.

“I would put on versions of things that I had seen. If I had been to the cinema to see Lady and the Tramp or Mary Poppins I would do my own version. I loved doing sketches and song and dance routines – so it was all in there from the word go.”

He said that his desire to be a dancer emerged over time. He loved performing but as he got older he realised he didn’t like the sound of his voice. “As a result I leant towards movement to tell the story and discovered my own way to tell a story.” He said it has been a remarkable journey because he had never set out to be a dancer, let alone a world-renowned choreographer. “It’s amazing, really, because my career has just evolved. It has been a really organic process that one thing has led to another.”

He added that one of the best developments in recent years is the way that theatre and dance have grown together and have borrowed from one another in order to tell different stories.

“You use different methods of delivery to tell the story – you use whatever is best for the show, whether it is dance, theatre or circus skills: whatever. It is something to be celebrated and it’s a great way to break down the snobbery which can be seen, occasionally, in the dance world. I’m all for mixing and celebrating people who are experts in different fields of dance.

“It’s great to bring in different elements. It’s not all about classical ballet.”

When he sets about choreographing a new work he is happy to look anywhere for inspiration. “I have no ties to classical dance. We have no need to maintain a ballet tradition, so we are free to try almost anything – which keeps the work fresh.

“We take a piece, look at it and think about how best to tell the story.

“I always approach it from the audience’s point of view. I don’t think you have to know anything about it before you sit down to watch it.

“You should tell the story. The audience should understand it as you perform the piece for them – that’s my philosophy.

“I don’t believe in programme notes (much), or scenarios or long explanations which you have to read before the programme begins. You don’t get that with a film and you shouldn’t need it for dance.

“I think that is a problem for a lot of people – you don’t get it unless you’ve read a lot of stuff beforehand. I think all we have to do is entertain people.

“The audience comes in, they sit down, the curtain goes up and off we go – what’s wrong with that?”

n Matthew Bourne’s Early Adventures, promoted by DanceEast, is being performed at the Ipswich Regent on June 29 and 30

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