We chat with ‘Britain’s favourite choreographer’ Matthew Bourne

by Karen Shaw

For those of you who aren’t aware, before I entered into the crazy world of publishing I had a career in contemporary dance. From ballet classes at the age of three and various amateur
dramatic productions, I eventually secured a place at the Laban Centre, London (now known as Trinity), one of the most prestigious dance colleges in the world. While I was there I would
often see a familiar face on the college notice boards promoting his dance works, an ex-student of Laban and also someone all the pupils emulated, the UK’s most loved choreographer, Sir Matthew Bourne. Described as the Damien Hirst of dance, he recently received a knighthood for his services to dance. This lad has done good. So, when I was offered the opportunity to meet the man himself in Blackpool I was there quicker than you
can say ‘Kiss me quick, squeeze me slow’…

I was there quicker than you can say ‘Kiss me quick, squeeze me slow

“Apart from the glasses we have something else in common,” is my opening sentence.

“Really?” Matthew replies. “Yes, we both studied dance at The Laban Centre,” I answer. That unfortunately is where the similarities end. After completing his training at Laban he went on to be one of the country’s best choreographers, famed for his interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s
Swan Lake and other iconic pieces, such as The Red Shoes and Car Man, a take on Bizet’s Carmen.

I met Matthew at Blackpool Grand theatre, one of the venues on his recent tours. “I love coming up North, the audiences are brilliant, supportive, vocal, and out for a good time. They’re the sort of audiences we like. We love the response we get. They certainly don’t sit on their hands! As a company we like to get out and about, and for years I’ve been saying, ‘why aren’t we going to Blackpool?’ So I’m so thrilled we’ve made it here.”

As I was beginning my training Matthew had left two years previously and launched his dance company New Adventures, which is currently celebrating its 30th year. And to mark their anniversary, Matthew has been touring the UK with his show Early Adventures, showcasing a few of his first ever dance pieces that helped launch his career and saw the birth of the style, wit and sheer entertainment that have become hallmarks of the New Adventures company today.

It was at the relatively old age of 22 that Matthew first auditioned for Laban, “I’d never done a dance class before my audition, but at the same time I actually thought I was quite good,” he smiles, “God knows what I looked like. But, Laban would take on people with oddities like me!”

But it’s that fearlessness and his ‘oddness’ that has continued to fuel Matthew’s success in the dance world.

Matthew is what you would call a ‘thinking dancer’, there’s no ‘kick your legs and smile girls’ approach with this chap.

Once you’ve choreographed a piece of dance, it’s in the hands of the dancers to perform it, the control is out of your hands and all your blood, sweat and tears are invested in them to deliver your dream. Whenever I devised a dance I would be in the wings sweating profusely
and expelling expletives if things didn’t go to plan.

Matthew, however, has a much more mature approach and can often be found viewing his dancers’ performance from the audience. “I love being within the audience, I love the feel you get from it and I always watch it from the beginning to the end. In the early years if something went wrong I would be tutting and shifting around in my seat and there were complaints about me. On one occasion someone in the audience complained about my behaviour and the manager replied by saying, ‘but, do you know who he is?’ and the lady answered, ‘I don’t care who he is,’ and she was absolutely right, so I apologised and gave her tickets for another night. I’m a lot calmer now, because there is nothing you can do about it.”

Matthew is genuinely a nice chap with a real sense of composure and a likeability factor that is reflected in his attitude to his dancers, he views them all as family. In the early years his dance company was founded with a group of friends from college and over the years that have followed he’s managed to keep it that way. “They all look out for each other even though it’s a big organisation. When someone new joins they all embrace them into the group very quickly. It’s a great company to be part of, there’s no rivalry. We don’t have a hierarchy in the company. Dancers play principal roles and in the next show they may play a
slightly smaller role. They are all equal.”

I’m from a working class background and consider myself incredibly lucky

Matthew Bourne

Karen chats to Matthew Bourne at the The Grand, Bloackpool.

When it comes to choreography all the dancers also have equal input, “I want the best idea in the room,” says Matthew, “and I don’t care if it comes from someone who’s been there ten years or ten minutes. If they’ve got a good idea and the courage to say it, all input is welcome. The age gap has grown a lot over the years as I’ve got older, the young ones who come in now can be a bit nervous of me and I have to break them down and become their friend so they feel they can contribute and I will listen to them. It’s important that they feel they have ownership on the piece.

“I’m so blessed to have such a good support network. I’m from a working class background and consider myself incredibly lucky to be able to have ideas and see them through, not everyone has that opportunity.”

It wasn’t until Matthew heard about other people’s parents that he realised how invaluable their support was. “I expected all parents to be like mine,” says Matthew, “they were non-judgemental. My friends loved them. Unfortunately, they’re both gone now, but the amount of young dancers who turned up to their funerals was incredible. My mum used to go over to them, she was a bit like the company is, she would always embrace new ones into the fold, and they always remembered that.”

Not only can Matthew create some of today’s greatest dance pieces, he’s also got a sharp business acumen, which he puts down to his work ethic. “I’ve always worked, I’ve always had a job and even when studying I worked part time. I don’t feel like I’ve got somewhere for no reason, I‘ve really worked for it. Once offered to be a judge on the first show of Strictly he turned it down has he has; “no interest in being a talking head on TV, and anyway I’ve already got a job.”

My experience of dance companies was to rehearse, rehearse, perform and then go out and party…is Matthew’s company the same? “Oh yeah,” he smiles, “they love to party, go out drinking and eat things you wouldn’t expect them to eat.”

Renowned for his theatrical performances, Matthew has received critiscism from dance critics stating he’s more a director than a choreographer. So, does Matthew see himself as a director that choreographs or a choreographer that directs?

“I might not be the best choreographer but directing is part of a choreographer’s job. I either fail or succeed on my ideas. I shouldn’t have someone explaining it to me. I don’t agree with that at all.” And with that he puts his hands on hips, and with a wry smile says, “Ooh, controversial!”

When I ask if his work defines him, he’s already nodding his head, “very much so, what you see on stage is me. It’s a representation of things that I like and love which is very much Early Adventures.”