Meet Matthew Bourne - the real Lord of the Dance

Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty. Credit: Johan Persson.
Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty. Credit: Johan Persson.
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Having recently been knighted, Britain’s greatest living choreographer Matthew Bourne talks to Sarah Freeman about his career on stage.

Matthew Bourne has been called many things over the years.

Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty. Credit: Johan Persson/

Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty. Credit: Johan Persson/

When he turned Swan Lake on its head by replacing the traditional female roles with men, he was was described as the enfant terrible of the dance world. Now with a trophy cabinet full of awards, he’s more likely to be referred to as Britain’s greatest living choreographer. As of January 1, he can also add “Sir” to his list of titles.

He was named in the Queen’s New Year Honours in recognition of almost three decades worth of work and it capped what had been a difficult 12 months for Bourne and his New Adventures dance company.

In August, principal dancer Jonathan Ollivier was killed in a motorcycle crash while on his way to the final performance of Bourne’s Car Man at Sadler’s Wells theatre. The 38 year-old had danced for Bourne for years and his sudden death left

an enormous gap in the famously tight-knit company.

“What can I say except that last summer was incredibly sad. He was a huge loss to us all, but quite quickly we also knew that once the grief had subsided a little that we wanted a chance to celebrate his life.”

The result is a show, simply entitled Mr Wonderful, will be staged for one-night only at Sadler’s Wells next week with the proceeds going to Ollivier’s two young sons. It will also mark the start of another busy 12 months for Bourne, whose revival of Sleeping Beauty comes to Bradford next month. Like most of his work, which as well as that landmark Swan Lake, also features a Cinderella set in London during the Blitz and a dance version of Edward Scissorhands, it pushes the boundaries of the traditional fairytale.

“Sleeping Beauty is an interesting production and one I was really keen to revive,” says Bourne, who has just celebrated his 55th birthday. “We have a very loyal audience and they come expecting something a little different. However, if speak to them at the interval of Sleeping Beauty many of them are surprised by how traditional the opening is. However, we wouldn’t want to disappoint, so come the second half we fast forward 100 years and it all gets a little darker.”

Before Bourne set up his own company with a group of friends in the late 1980s, dance – and in particular ballet – attracted a rather niche audience. Outside of the big companies, many provincial theatres avoided programming all but the most traditional fare, fearing that artistic integrity was unlikely to equate to decent box office takings.

Bourne changed all that.

“People often ask did I consciously set out to make dance more accessible. I’m not sure it was quite that definite, but I have always thought about the audience and I have borrowed a little from film and the really big stage shows. Every show is developed from their point of view and if I have managed to introduce a new audience to dance, then it’s been a complete privilege.”

While Bourne may now be one of the dance world’s leading lights, he admits that the establishment weren’t always so keen. When Swan Lake premiered in 1995, so outraged were some at what they saw as the unnecessary tampering with the original ballet that they walked out of the early performances.

“I never set out to shock, but yes, I did know that it would get a reaction. The walkouts were few and far between, in fact most people were very lovely, but anything new can polarise opinion, but I knew that the work was good and that it would ultimately stand for itself.”

Bourne’s Swan Lake is now the longest running ballet in the West End, it successfully transferred to Broadway, has been performed across Europe and Asia and its popularity was sealed when it was used as the final scene in Billy Elliot.

“The audience for dance has changed incredibly over the last couple of decades. When I was starting out you knew there were a lot of people who had been dragged to the theatre against their will. Not anymore. Partly that’s down to shows like Strictly, which has brought dance into people’s living rooms, but I’d like to think that we have also played at least a small part in that change.”

Bourne’s determination to break out of the strict formalities of ballet is in large part due to his own background and training. While most top dancers and choreographers are schooled from an early age, it wasn’t until he was 22 that Bourne decided to audition for dance school.

“I wasn’t a complete novice, but I was self-taught. Thankfully I was also blessed with that particularly brand of fearlessness which comes with being young. It never once crossed my mind that I shouldn’t be auditioning along with everyone else or that my lack of formal training would be a problem.

“I just turned up and thought, ‘Right, let’s give this a go’. To be honest I think they were probably less impressed by my moves than my passion. I’d seen every show going and even then I had an insatiable curiosity about how work is put together. There was also the fact that most dance schools were desperately short of boys, so anyone who showed an interest was immediately recruited.”

Bourne is being typically modest, but insists that despite being a relative outsider he found the warmest of welcomes at The Laban Centre where he studied dance theatre and choreography.

“A lot of people in this business come from a long line of entertainers and while my parents weren’t from that kind of background, they were big fans of the theatre and musicals in particular. We went to the theatre whenever we could even if it meant sitting in the gods. Those experiences have really influenced my work, as I want it to look good from wherever you sit. The cheap seats shouldn’t be an any worse experience than being in the front of the stalls.”

Growing up, Bourne says he could be often found putting on a show and for a while he did consider acting.

“The problem was I hit puberty and suddenly I didn’t like the sound of my voice. Honestly, I couldn’t bear it, I was incredibly shy and I just hated talking which is funny really because you can’t shut me up now. However, my love of singing and dancing never waned. I’d charge old ladies from down the street to come and watch my shows.

“I’d give them a cup of tea but they’d have to pay. I’ve always had one eye on the business.”

Bourne has been awarded many plaudits over the years. As well as the clutch of Olivier and Tony Awards, he has also been the subject of a South Bank Show, but he says he knew he’d made it when he was invited onto Desert Island Discs back in 2004. For the record, he saved Ella Fitzgerald’s Night and Day from the waves, chose Kenneth Williams’ diaries as his book and as for his one luxury, that was spotted dick with Lyon’s syrup.

“The ultimate comfort food and if I was going to be marooned on a desert island I reckon I would need a pretty big helping.”

Aside from the revival of Sleeping Beauty, Bourne has big plans for this year, but for the moment he can’t reveal the details.

“Honestly, I’m terrible at keeping secrets, but I have been told I must, so I am trying to be good. What I can say is there will be a world premiere this year and we are already quite well on with the piece and it’s looking good. Making new work is the reason I got into this business and every day I go into the studio feels like a real privilege.”

Sleeping Beauty, Alhambra, Bradford, February 23 to 27. 01274 432000, bradford-theatres.co.uk.