Even as a child, choreographer and director Sir Matthew Bourne showed both creative talent and business acumen, putting on neighbourhood shows – and then charging the neighbours. 'I’d go see Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and The Lady and the Tramp, and recreate them somehow, using snippets of songs,' he recalled, adding that his brother usually took part, and Janet down the street was always the leading lady. 'But what makes me laugh now is the charging money,' he says. 'It was like having a business mind right from the beginning.'
But nearly three decades, and an OBE later, Bourne has done the impossible – turned classical dance into a commercial enterprise. His fresh takes on grizzled warhorses tour internationally for 30 weeks at a time and, even more unusually, run for months on the West End. His Nutcracker turned the treasured gift into a ventriloquist dummy, and the Chinese, Arabic and Russian divertissements (dance solos by non-principals) into flamenco-dancing liquorice allsorts, a lounge-singing knickerbocker glory, and marshmallow girls (Clara also loses her prince to a woman named Sugar).
His enormously popular but controversial Swan Lake – which brought little girls to tears – features ungainly, aggressive male swans serenading a confused and lonely prince. And to celebrate his company’s 25th anniversary, Bourne closed the Tchaikovsky trilogy with Sleeping Beauty – and vampires.
Born in London to a secretary mother and father who worked for Thames Water, Bourne today is a preternaturally youthful fifty-something, with artsy black-rimmed glasses and an engaging belly laugh, which rings out often. But he’s got a lot to be happy about. As possibly the most commercially successful choreographer in history, he found that fabled balance between artistic integrity and mainstream appeal; between ethereal classical ballet and incomprehensible modern dance. 'I don’t see the point of making work if it’s not for the audience; I want people to understand what we’re doing,' he says. 'It’s doesn’t have to be easy – the audience still has to follow the story, but they don’t like being overly confused.'
Bourne credits his talent for mass appeal to his unusual arts background, graduating from neighbourhood impresario to autograph hunter. 'Like anything else I do, it was a hobby that turned into an obsession,' he says, adding that as a polite 14-year old British boy who said 'Miss', and 'would you mind' he was a hit with the American stars used to coarser fans. He learned about the celebrities from the 'nutty, eccentric' assemblage of autograph hounds, some of whom started earlier than he did and are still on the job today. 'Someone should write a play about people who wait by stage doors,' he says. 'But some of them realise who I am now,' he continues. 'They’re quite proud of me.'
But the stars were just part of the package; for Bourne, it was the work that resonated. At age 13, he saw Angela Landsbury’s Gypsy on stage and had a revelation. 'I was thirteen, and I wanted to be a newsboy – you know, “extra, extra,”' he recalls laughing. 'That was my first feeling of, "I want to be in it, not just watch it.”' Seeing A Chorus Line – 11 times – only intensified this desire. 'That was a real eye-opener, not just about the life of a dancer, but about people being honest about who they were,' he says. 'I was probably thinking about my sexuality at that point, and there were people talking about it. And they were swearing,' he continues. 'My auntie Helen couldn't watch it, but I thought that was quite daring.'
As a university student working as a National Theatre usher, Bourne watched dance and drama every night and got on-the-job training for his future career. 'I was feeding myself with lots of images, and learned a lot about structure,' he says. 'I realised that some actors did the same thing every night, but others couldn’t do that, and the show was always different. That helped me work with actors later.'
Oddly, neither the arts-obsessed Bourne nor his 'very supportive' parents ever considered him going on auditions or getting an agent. 'I was always jealous of child stars, the boys from Oliver, or the kids from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but the thought of doing it professionally seemed very far away from me,' he says. 'I was happy doing our local amateur things.' But at the comparatively mature age of 22, he auditioned for the prestigious Laban Centre for Movement and Dance, and took his first serious steps towards making his all-consuming hobby a career.
'The first [dance] thing I did was my dance audition, he says. 'I had a done a lot of song and dance shows, and naively assumed I was not bad. I was probably terrible.' He feels the school selected him because of his enthusiasm, his encyclopaedic knowledge of dance, and that his age made this a choice, not a whim. But he credits his patchwork background for his accessibility. 'Dance is so single-minded and dedicated; if you get in too early, maybe you don’t have other interests,' he says, adding that his rich background in theatre, film, travel, and 'living' gave him perspective. 'I see dance not as a tradition, but as an entertainment – and how it can work for an audience.'
Sometimes that vision is cloudy. Bourne put off doing Sleeping Beauty for 25 years because he was stymied by the story. ‘It’s just kings and queens, and not much to do at the end – and Aurora’s a weird character,' he says. 'She’s the heroine, but she spends the prologue as sort of a dead baby in a cot, she’s asleep for most of the third act, and then she dances at her own wedding,' he continues. 'It’s not great.' But missing the third pillar of the Tchaikovsky trilogy was not an option, given their exalted ballet status. 'The music is the best ever written for dance, and it’s dramatic too,' he says. Bourne feels that classics should be maintained, but also reinterpreted. 'The goal is to tell the story in the best possible way, like a Shakespeare play.'
Transforming a weak story into engaging drama took some research. The first step was reading anything but the story, and concentrating on alternative versions, literary criticism, and psychological analysis. (Predictably, Freud had a lot to say about a teenage girl pricking herself and drawing blood.) Even the sleeping represented – to some – a young person afraid of growing up and parents afraid of letting her go. 'These stories that we tell again and again,' says Bourne, 'there’s something there that resonates, that hits us deep down.'
The next step was giving Aurora her own identity. First, we learn that she is adopted, mysteriously procured for the royal couple by the wicked fairy Carabose. Instead of using a doll or a non-descript bundle of rags in the prologue, as is tradition, Bourne created a puppet for 'the bit wild, but likeable' baby princess. Before she descends into the her alternate universe, she falls in love with the charming but socially unsuitable gardener, Leo – however, even in her dormant state she stays active.
As a sleepwalker, Aurora dances in limbo in a world of lost loves; later, she does a pas de deux with Caradoc, Carabose’s evil son, but she sleeps on, since only her true love can wake her. Fortunately, Leo is waiting for his moment, thanks to the vampire fairy Count Lilac, Bourne’s re-imagination of the Lilac Fairy. 'We’re still in the land of fairy tales,' he says. 'Vampires can give you the gift of eternal life.'
Instead of being a hindrance, the century-long sleep gave Bourne room to manoeuvre. Like the original, the story begins in 1890, but Aurora comes of age at 21, not 16, which means we see dance styles and costumes from 1911. The next stage takes us almost to present day, and the final act is always labelled 'last night' via projection. But will the trendiness of vampires give this version a shorter shelf life?
'I thought about that a lot,' says Bourne. 'I didn’t want anyone to think I was jumping on a vampire bandwagon. But vampires have been around since [at least] the 1890s, and it’s not the most important part of the piece. If you think you’re going to see a piece about vampires, that’s not the case.' And Bourne felt that additions of the early romance, the love triangle, and the fully developed Aurora character made for a richer theatrical experience. “As I started to work on all these things we’re talking about, I started to love it,' he says.
'I Iove the story; I loved the tension of good versus evil, and I loved the fact I was creating a new fairy tale around a simple basic story.' Since today, more people have seen Bourne’s Swan Lake than the Royal Ballet version, who knows what the years will bring – maybe this Sleeping Beauty will be one for the ages.