Critical Dance



- A conversation with Matthew Bourne -

September 8, 2001

By Ed Lippman


Interview is perhaps the wrong word to describe any discussion with Matthew Bourne. Conversation is better. Instantly engaging, his wide-ranging answers become stories in and of themselves, captivating you, drawing you into his world of stage, movie musicals and classic film references. I was lucky enough to grab some time with him backstage at the Ahmanson Theatre. While his cast ran through the paces of their company class nearby, Bourne himself was somewhat hurried. His frenetic energy, bouncing from one meeting to another is laced with a hint of playfulness. Despite the pull of business, mischief seems to lurk somewhere not too far away at any moment. Punctuated by the occasional flash as Lara Hartley took photographs, it's easy to get lost in his world with him.

First of all, I have to say the Matthew Bourne sitting in front of me is nothing like the man I expected to meet. I had this image from all the interviews I'd read of a reserved, towering man, probably carrying the same rod my own ballet teacher carries as he prowls authoritatively around the studio during class, rapping it onto the floor as he counts out beats. Not at all. Infinitely approachable, unassuming and youthful in spirit, he's the kind of person you'd pass on the street without knowing or ever guessing the things he's achieved.

Fortunately for me, the call he was waiting for never happened. We had lots of time for the interview. Rather, the conversation it became.

EL: In the Los Angeles Times interview (Gunning the Motor, 9/2/01), you mentioned that you'd changed the show for Los Angeles. I'm curious in what ways. I know one of the ways is that you're doing it with live music here.

MB: We did it originally with live music in London and on the tour of Britain. It's very complex musically and it needs rehearsal. We couldn't tour with musicians. We'd need pick-up musicians. We're only a week in each place mostly. So we couldn't rehearse anyone. Here we can do it because it's for a longer period.

EL: How has that made a difference for the dancers? Does it make a difference for the dancers?

MB: Yes it does because some of them have never done it to live music. The European tour was to recorded music we did before it. So there are some people who've never done it. Of course it's difference with every performance so it's something to get used to. It changes. It's faster, it's slower. It's quite tricky.

EL: Do you think they like it more?

MB: I think they do because they feel you're part of a larger thing. I depends what mood you're in, really. If it's all going well it all feels good. You can't beat live music for a live experience. The recorded version worked very well. It's very powerful. And most audiences didn't seem to mind.

EL: As a writer myself, I know that in my stories I can't help but end up having one character or even two who end up having a part of me in them. Are there characters in the show who have parts of you or pieces of you that you're trying to work out?

MB: It's very funny. It's a question I often get asked here. I think it's a very American thing of linking the artist to their work in a personal way. I think there is a lot of me in the aesthetic of the whole thing, in the pieces I do. I have trouble saying one character is me. I'm more objective with characters I think. I see things from their perspective, their point of view, put myself in their position. Everyone always thought "Oh you're the Prince in Swan Lake. That's you." I've never really felt like that. And I always have a character that suffers a lot in my pieces. [In] All the stories there's a character that goes through hell. I've never really had that at any point. I've been quite happy, really. I don't 'think' any particular character but I do 'think' a particular way of looking at things, an aesthetic -- and the way I like to see things on stage, the way I don't like to see dance where every one looks the same. I like to see different looking people, shapes and sizes. A bit of you goes into things that way. I always like to have smaller dancers in the show, and taller because they often find it difficult to get work. You could be a very tall girl and a very short man, they could be brilliant.

EL: I was rather surprised in the hallway yesterday watching people walk by. And I realized I was taller than most of these people and it took me off guard. I mean, you look at the A.B.T. and these people tower above you.

MB: I prefer to try and recreate the real world, real people the audience can identify with more.

EL: I've also heard you say that character was much more interesting to you. When you start a story, do you think of a character first and go from there? How do you start the process? How did "Car Man" come together?

MB: It usually starts with music, wanting to work with that music. But then you have to find something to sort of 'hang it on.' With "Car Man" it was a bit difficult because I didn't really want to do the "Carmen" story. I was looking for something that was moving me forward in a way. So to write a story and to create a story around the music was a different way of doing things then I'd done before. Because the music served the story, rather than me having to fit it like with "Cinderella" and "Swan Lake," where the scores already existed in an order I had to make a story work for. With this one the music was made to fit the story I'd already written.

It's funny, when I go to think of a new piece you have loads of threads of ideas that you want to do and they can all seem very different. But funny enough they all end up in the piece you end up doing, somehow indirectly. It's something that's on your mind. It ends up being in there somewhere.

EL: I'm curious, one day you're probably sitting there thinking, "'Swan Lake.' 'Swan Lake,' what can I do with this?" Ideas come from the strangest places. Synapses just fire and there they are. When did you just say, "Oh, with men?"

MB: I think I'd watched the ballet quite a lot of times, which I'd really enjoyed at the time, and I started imagining it in a different way. I started thinking "Oh what would it be like if…" I liked the Prince-Mother relationship which is very sort of sketchy in the classical piece. But it's all there, the version I did was very much the same the mother trying to marry off the Prince to a suitable Princess, a fellow Royal, and him wanting to be himself and marry for love. But also it was tied in a little with Royal coverage that was going on at the time in Britain. It was such a media thing. It was just in the news every day, Prince Charles and Diana and Camilla. So, it was all influenced by that. This is as much a part of it as the male swan thing was the Royal thing. It seemed such an obvious thing the Prince couldn't be the person he wanted to be with the person he wanted to be with.

EL: I've also heard you're in talks regarding one of my favorite movies, "Edward Scissorhands."

MB: I'm more than in talks. I've already written a scenario with Caroline Thompson and started working with Danny Elfman. Tim Burton gave his blessing to it.

EL: Is he involved at all?

MB: No. He said more or less it's yours to do with that you want. He knows it's not his thing [the stage]. He's very generous. It's such a personal project for him. So it's a very generous thing for him to do. But his collaborators… The funny thing is I was up for it being anything, a musical, music lead with dialogue, speech. They only agreed to do it if it was like one of these shows ["Car Man"].

EL: No dialogue?

MB: Just music. The thought of lyrics and songs, they weren't interested in doing it that way.

EL: Who were you thinking of for the role of "Edward Scissorhands?"

MB: Will Kemp's going to do it.

EL: A couple of questions about you. I'm intrigued by the fact that you started dancing late. At what age?

MB: 22.

EL: Had you always wanted to dance? Had you done some dance before this?

MB: I had done song and dance types of shows. I was always putting on shows. But no actual training, no class or training of any kind. When I'd auditioned for my college I'd never done a dance class. I was always making up dances.

EL: Why didn't you dance early?

MB: I wasn't from that sort of family. We loved theater and film but it never really occurred to me. I wasn't really interested in a way. I always wanted to be a child star. I was jealous of kids in film. How do you get to be in that? People like Mark Lester, the kids in "Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang." I was so jealous of them.

It really came about quite late. I got really interested in dance on many levels of watching and reading about it as an academic subject and the history of it. I really loved all that. That's how I justified doing the course in the first place as an academic course with a degree at the end of it. I didn't think I'd have a career in it at all in any way because I was too old I thought.

EL: You thought?

MB: I did because everyone said you had to be eleven. When people talk about dance they always talk about ballet. They always assume its ballet. They say, "Well, eleven's the oldest you can be to be a dancer as a boy." Even now when I talk to people at home in the dance world, they always say to me "when did you go to the school." The school. The Royal Ballet School. They assume everyone who's come to any kind of prominence was there at some point. And I've not been anywhere near it.

EL: It seems to me you moved to being a choreographer very quickly.

MB: Straight away. When I started this company [AMP] it was a group of people who wanted to work. And we didn't see any way of getting a job as dancers and we were very into choreography. At least four people in the company wanted to choreograph. So it was formed to be able to perform and choreograph.

EL: How was it working with McGiven, the director of the film version of "Car Man?" Did he pull things out of it that you hadn't seen before?

MB: It was a tricky one actually because everyone said this would make a great film. But that's actually not a good thing in some ways because it's filmic in a theatrical way. If you made those filmic ideas into literal film things then you've lost what was interesting theatrically about it. So the filmic ideas are very theatrical. There were some things we could do in the film that we couldn't do on stage. Luke has a little vision of Angelo in prison. It's up in the bars. It's only there because it needs to be there. What we could do in the film was he could go over to the barman and the barman could turn into Angelo. He's seeing the face of Angelo in the barman's face. It's neater and easier than doing it the way we do it on stage. So in that sense we've done a few filmic things in it but not change the whole thing to make it into a film.

EL: What's your favorite dance movie?

MB: Oh, there's so many. I think my favorite Fred and Ginger film is "Swing Time," which I loved. I love a lot of MGM movies. I love Cyd Charisse and Ann Miller and all those people. Big fan of them. "The Red Shoes." I love a lot of film musicals. Fred is my ultimate pleasure.

EL: Any pre-show rituals?

MB: I'm always on stage before it starts with my notes from the last night. I don't know if that's annoying for them or not. I look through and give them my notes. I don't think I have any particular thing.

EL: Favorite dancer?

MB: Astair, obviously. Baryshnikov. All those women I just mentioned. I like watching Mark Morris perform. Jesse Matthews. Star of the 30's. Did a lot of musical in Britain. I love a lot of people I work with. You have to sort of slightly be in love with the people you work with.

EL: Best moment as a dancer or director?

MB: Everyone expects me to say "Swan Lake" and getting Tony Awards and all that. It was very exciting, very, very exciting. I loved all that. I couldn't have dreamt of all that. The thing that most satisfied me was doing "Cinderella" here. It was rushed straight into the West End in front of all the press very quickly with not much time to work on it. I needed time to work on it. And this theater gave me the chance to rehearse for another six weeks, a long time for a piece that already existed. I was able to change two-thirds of it and really work on it. And when it opened here and was successful I was so happy. I loved the show and the chance to be able to do that really made me feel good. I was very happy people liked it. That was really one of my favorite experiences of recent years.

Car Man the Show

- An Auto-Erotic Thriller -

Car Man Talk

- Talk about the show -

Designer: Lena Marie Stuart
US Director: Azlan Ezaddin
UK Director: Stuart Sweeney

All photos copyright 2001 Lara Hartley unless noted otherwise

All contributions as noted in each feature.