Does it say Sir Matthew Bourne now on the door of his office-cum-dressing room at Sadler’s Wells, I wonder? “Let’s have a look,” he says and gets up to check. “I don’t know to be honest, probably not.” It speaks volumes that he genuinely doesn’t know. One of the most influential people in British theatre, certainly the most influential choreographer working in the UK, he has earned the right to a far bigger ego and certainly the right to have ‘Sir’ on his dressing room door.
“If it does say ‘Sir Matthew’, it will only be there as a joke,” he insists.
He opens the door and we both see it. The title is absent. We’re in the dressing room of ‘‘Mr Matthew Bourne’’.
“Look at that. Plain old ‘mister’. Terrible. To be honest, I don’t think our company manager agrees with awards and honours.”
So how does it feel being a knight of the realm? “It is a bit odd because it’s such an old thing. As honours go, it’s one of the true ones that hasn’t been made up, a real old thing that goes back to the round table. It doesn’t come with as many benefits as you might think, but it is very lovely.”
It might not get your name changed on your dressing room door at Sadler’s Wells, but becoming Sir Matthew (I’ll revert to his surname as he clearly doesn’t hold that much truck with the title) is a significant step.
He followed it with Cinderella and The Car Man, based on Bizet’s Carmen, which won the Evening Standard Award for Musical Event of the Year in 2000. And yet despite all the awards and the extraordinary success, Bourne was that word thought dirty in some circles: ‘‘popular’’.
Not that the cognoscenti peering down their noses mattered to Bourne. He kept forging on, creating works that were not just popular, but wildly so. In 2002 he launched his new company, New Adventures and never looked back. The hits kept coming including Play Without Words (2002), Dorian Gray (2008) and Lord of the Flies (2011). Each show was more successful than the last as Bourne left his mark on the cultural life of the UK and beyond.
When he received his knighthood in 2016, it was a recognition of just how much of an impact he had made. “I suppose suddenly it was my time. I’ve been around a long time and I’m still doing what I do. It’s great, but the awards are not what you do it for,” he says.
“When I got the knighthood though, I loved it. I’m not going to be all modest about it, I thought it was great. I thought it was amazing to be a knight. When I first got the letter I just laughed. I just thought ‘well, that’s not something I ever expected’. I love it.
“What it’s done is give me a voice for my profession. People come to me for comment on things, so it gives you a little bit more authority talking about dance and supporting young dancers and choreographers, so it’s a helpful thing as well, it can be very useful.”
The truth is, Bourne doesn’t need the title to sell out his shows; the shows do that for themselves.
When we meet in his dressing room/office in Sadler’s, it is after a matinee performance of The Red Shoes. The production, which premiered in 2016 at this same theatre, is yet another addition to a bulging portfolio of award-winning shows from Bourne’s New Adventures. Based on the 1948 Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger film, it is a stunning piece of theatre. Not just a piece of dance theatre, but theatre. In the reviews it was described as a love letter to theatre itself.
The ballet tells the story of the dancer who, once she pulls on the eponymous shoes, is unable to stop dancing. It’s a haunting, beautiful work that will leave audiences mesmerised when the production arrives in Bradford, Hull and Sheffield this year as part of a national tour.
“It is my love letter to the theatre,” Bourne confesses. “It’s full of moments that amuse me, getting the sand dance in there is something I’ve always wanted to have in a piece, and the representation of British music hall, being a little seedy, that world is one that I’ve loved creating in this.
“It’s a story that’s close to me in many ways. It’s been an ambition to do the piece for so long, I’m glad I’ve done it now and not years ago, because I feel like I’m a lot more confident in my storytelling in a way,” he says.
Yorkshire audiences will have the chance to witness the confidence with which Bourne directs and choreographs when the production arrives at the Bradford Alhambra next month, then at Hull’s New Theatre and Sheffield Lyceum later in the year. Bourne will be coming to Bradford, as he often does, with the production.
“Bradford was a tough one to begin with, it was a challenge to build the audience when we first started coming to the Alhambra,” he says.
“Fortunately, when you do a big tour you can put in a date that’s a bit more challenging and the new one for us is Hull. We’ve been there for the past two years and the audience is a lot smaller than the other places we go, but you can put a show like that in a big tour and hope that it will build and it will cover itself, so you’re not too much at risk. That’s what happened at Bradford initially, we knew we’d have to do the work there and then each time you see the growth of the audience and that’s great. Now when I’m there people like to come up to me and tell me a list of the shows they’ve seen and put them in order for me.”
I tell Bourne that’s a very Yorkshire thing. He accepts it goes with the territory, and he’s fine with that. His evangelism for dance continues, this knight on his quest to bring great art to the masses. They should stick that on his door.
The Red Shoes is at Bradford Alhambra, March 17 to 21, tickets 01274 432000. It is also at Hull New Theatre, May 5-9 and Sheffield Lyceum, May 26-30.