Interview: star choreographer Matthew Bourne

7th June 2007


The adventurous choreographer chats to Philip Fisher about the current revival of his 2000 ‘danc-icle’ show, The Car Man, and about his career, which also includes Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Edward Scissorhands.

The Car Man was the first time I used the music as a film score – I wrote the story first and then fitted the music in.



The adventurous choreographer chats to Philip Fisher about the current revival of his 2000 ‘dancicle’ show, The Car Man, and about his career, which also includes Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Edward Scissorhands.

Recording date: 7 June 2007

Transcribed by the V&A © This transcript is copyright of the Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If you wish to refer to this in publication its reference is INTERVIEW: MATTHEW BOURNE and you must use the full url as displayed in your browser’s address bar.

Philip Fisher: This is Philip Fisher, today I’m in East London at the rehearsal studios where Matthew Bourne is beginning to put together the tour of Car Man. Mathew, welcome to TheatreVOICE.

Matthew Bourne: Thank you, good to be here.

Philip Fisher: First of all, your work is a real cross-over between theatre, dance, ballet and maybe some other genre. How do you classify it?

Matthew Bourne: Well, I suppose the easiest term is dance-theatre. It’s one of those things that’s sort of dogged me throughout my career, is what do you call these pieces, you know, and publicists throughout the world now have sort of made attempts to come up with names for what it is I do. The latest one, in America, and Japan, is ‘dancicle’, which is Edward Scissorhands, which sort of felt like a musical, it felt like you were watching a musical. It had numbers in it, but obviously no songs, no words, so ‘dancicle’ seemed to explain to an audience of people we were playing to, which actually in some cases was cities we’d never been to before, and we were going to theatres as part of a Broadway season of musicals mainly, so they needed some sort of definition that sort of made sense to them. And interestingly about, I guess in some places we went to, 70 per cent, 80 per cent of the audience was sitting there waiting for the first song and just waiting for someone to speak, and of course when it didn’t happen, or it got longer and longer before, people started to look at each other and go like, “Are they going, is anyone going to sing?” But what’s great about that is you get the people in and you hopefully win them over through the evening so by the end of the evening they’ve, which they were, all standing on their feet and cheering, but it wasn’t what they thought they’d come to see. How could you explain unless you see it, that’s the thing. So I’ve given up trying to sort of explain, or decide what to call it. I’m happy to explain, but I don’t know what exactly to call it anymore.

Philip Fisher: And your background is in dance?

Matthew Bourne: It is and isn’t, I mean, I came to dance very late so I started dance training when I was 22, and I didn’t discover ballet and modern dance till I was 20, you know, before that my loves were MGM musicals, musicals, Julie Andrews films I grew up with obviously, having been born in 1960, so the first movie I saw was The Sound of Music at my fifth birthday, so that was the sort of era which I grew up. So I loved movies, theatre, which my parents were into and so they took me to see quite a lot, from an earlyish age, sort of seven, eight, nine I was going to the theatre from that point onwards in London.

Philip Fisher: In London?

Matthew Bourne: Yeah, I was born in London, born in Hackney, and so that was my background really, so my storytelling now is influenced by movies and theatre really, of that time and since, because those were my first loves. Dance came later, and has become something that I love very much, but it’s the medium through which I tell stories, and I’ve never seen any reason why I couldn’t incorporate the ways of theatre and movies into my dance productions, so that’s where the strange mix sort of arises really, I don’t, it’s highly theatrical, and I don’t see any reason why I can’t use any different form of theatre or dance, for that matter. It’s not a particular form of dance I use, it’s not, you couldn’t say it was strictly ballet, it’s a mixture of modern dance, ballet, social dance, dancing that people recognise, tap dancing sometimes, flamenco, different forms of dance, national dancing, anything really.

Philip fisher: The current piece that you’re taking around Britain is Car Man, do you want to, I’m sure you do, want to tell us a little about that?

Matthew Bourne: Well, it’s called The Car Man, and obviously it’s based on Carmen, the opera, but it’s not the story of the opera. It uses the music, it’s actually more based on a movie called, or a book I should say, by James M Cain, called The Postman Always Rings Twice, which is the basis of the set-up of the story, but then we start to tell our own story within it, so it doesn’t really follow that story, but you’d recognise the situation. It’s, people who know the opera would see parallels between some of the characters in the opera, but it really isn’t that story, and the reason I, it was the first time I’d attempted to do something where I could use the score like a film score, so I could tell the story first, write the story first, and then fit the music to the story. With the other pieces I’ve done, or had done up to that point, Nutcracker, Swan Lake, those kind of things, you, the music is your guide, because the music is written to tell a story in a particular order, and then you tell your story with that, this is the other way round. I also wanted to do a thriller, and see if I could do a dance thriller, and of course, with a story you already know, you, there are no thrills, there’s no suspense, so I wanted to invent a story really, and have twists in it that would surprise people, so that was the impulse for doing it.

Philip Fisher: And how long does it take you to put together something like this, is it a project that takes weeks, months, years?

Matthew Bourne: Well, this current one is, it’s a revival of a piece we did, we first did it in 2000 at the Old Vic, but I’m someone who always meddles in my own work, I’m a constant meddler, and I always think you could do better and improve, so this time, approaching a piece, I love reviving pieces because I, it gives me a chance to really deconstruct and start from scratch again and work on them again, and there’s a whole new generation of dancers to do these roles, so it takes less time ‘cause you’ve not got to work out the whole structure; the story, so, the first time is so important, the rhythm of the whole evening is important. Once you’ve got those things solved you can go into the detail more, so a revival like this will take, we’re only really rehearsing for three weeks before we get on stage, so it’s tough work, it’s hard work, you know, and there’s a lot of people who’ve, you know, not done this piece before, so not long enough to do masses, but we did do some workshop work on it a few months ago, so we’ve really looked at the material and changed, made our changes and things, so, and I’ve been thinking about it for some time, so it’s always difficult to say how long it takes because often your, your preparation time is spread out over a period of time, and usually the rehearsal period is the most intense time, but that’s, obviously you’ve done a lot of work before that.

Philip Fisher: Let’s talk about some of your other work. I think you’ve just come back from Russia where you’ve been sort of doing a “coals to Newcastle” job taking Tchaikovsky there.

Matthew Bourne: Yeah, it’s been amazing, I was there last week, I had to, because I’ve been in rehearsal I could only go for the opening night, and it was at the, we were doing Swan Lake, as you say, Tchaikovsky, in Moscow, where it was premiered originally, but we’re performing at the Moscow Arts Theatre, as part of the Chekhov festival, and we open the festival, and it’s never been to Russia, my version, and so we’re in this amazing historical theatre, all Chekhov’s plays were premiered…

Philip Fisher: … Stanislavski’s theatre?

Matthew Bourne: Yes, Stanislavski’s theatre, and the ghosts of all these old actors are all, well their pictures are on the wall, it’s sort of covered in pictures of actors, great Russian actors, and it’s a lovely house to play it in actually, because it’s, it’s got a large stage but a smallish auditorium, so it’s a 900-seater, and Swan Lake very rarely plays venues like this anymore, it plays enormous venues, and for the Russian audience obviously they’re getting this big show in this small, intimate space where they actually can get more involved in it in many ways, you know the performances, so it’s great, and we’re getting a lot of, we actually had a 95-year-old ex-Bolshoi ballerina come the other night, and she was blown away by it apparently, she thought it was wonderful, and she’d danced the Royal many times of course, in her career. And a lot of old ex-dancers are coming to see the show, you know Bolshoi dancers, and so it’s wonderful really, and to take it home there has always been an ambition, since we first did it, really. It’s scary, but the audiences have been amazing, and they’ve been bravo-ing and cheering, and on their feet every night, throwing flowers at the stage after every performance. I mean when the Russians love you they really love you, you know, it’s fantastic, so the company are having a ball out there at the moment.

Philip Fisher: Sounds fantastic. You seem to enjoy subverting media which is putting yourself at risk because you’ll take much-loved movies, and change them into dance pieces, you’ll take classical ballets and make them into something modern, is that, you like risk taking, is that a deliberate policy, or is it just the way you work?

Matthew Bourne: It’s not really a policy with me at all, I, it may be viewed as risk-taking in some quarters, you know, I’ve never seen it as such, I just see it as the only way I can do it. And so the stories I’m drawn to, the ballets that I wanted to do, and I’ve had the chance, the privilege to do really, I just wanted to work with that music, I wanted people to hear that music in a different way maybe, that was my impulse for doing it, not to go against anything that already existed. I mean, I’m someone who loves the ballet of Swan Lake, I love the movie of Edward Scissorhands, I’m not sort of saying, “Oh I can do it better”, I just think I just love the material, and I’ve got a form in which I tell stories which is very different from the original, and that’s what I apply to it really. And, you know, it’s totally creative in that sense because you have to retell the story in a way which is almost inventing it from scratch, because of the way you’re telling the story. And this is why Tim Burton actually agreed for me to be able to work with Edward Scissorhands, because it was so different in approach from what he had done, that he didn’t mind another director taking it on board because it was like, well, I can’t do, that’s not what I do, and I think if it was like a TV series, or a Part Two, he would never have agreed it; but because it was a whole different medium really, he was happy about it.

Philip Fisher: And that was dancing with blades, which was also very brave, or it looked like it.

Matthew Bourne: Yeah the blades were, they are quite dangerous, I have to say, I mean they’re not (obviously) real blades, but they are, you know, firm plastic sort of, you know, if you get something, one of those in your eyes, or you can get hit by them, moving at fast speed, it’s not nice, you know. I mean they’re, and they do take up an enormous amount of space onstage, when someone’s dancing with another foot-and-a-bit sort of extension on their hands, you know, so it’s, they’re pretty scary.

Philip Fisher: The look of pieces seems important to you, I think you’ve worked with Les Brotherston quite a lot…

Matthew Bourne: Mmm…

Philip Fisher: And I think the set that we’re looking at outside the room that we’re in is one of his?

Matthew Bourne: Yes, Les Brotherston, I’ve done most of my work with him in my company, and he’s sort of obviously the, my main collaborator on many shows, and brings a whole world to the productions which is invaluable, you know, it sort of, he gives you a playground in which to work. His sets are not, oh, what’s the set for the club scene, and what’s the set for the garage scene, and what’s the set for, you know, and things sort of flying in, it’s always a set that adapts into things in front of your eyes; and I’ve found, and I think he agrees, is that audiences love watching sets become things, just by the change of light, and The Car Man is particularly brilliant for that, the lighting by Chris Davey is a brilliant, again another brilliant collaborator to turn this basic, very basic set into many different places and many different feelings, worlds, and it just happens at the flick of a switch almost. So it’s fascinating for an audience to watch those things come to life as well as, rather than just, oh, you know the curtain goes up on another set, you know.

Philip Fisher: And in this case, rather than bull fighting, it looks kind of Edward Hopper, mid-Western town?

Matthew Bourne: Yeah, small-town America, garage-diner, small town with people who’ve, all know each other very well and you know a stranger arrives in town, and things develop from there, you know, it’s one of those stories. What I like about the story is that it sets itself up as a story you think you know, so you’re watching it, about 20 minutes in you go, “Oh, I know this story, I know what’s going to happen, I know, I know, I’ve seen this,” you know, and then different things start to happen and the audience starts to get quite thrown in a way, and quite excited by it I think because there, it’s a conventional set-up that then turns into something different, which is sort of what I like to do really, lead people up the garden path a little. I’m a very big fan of Hitchcock, so Hitchcock comes into my thinking quite a lot, and I love his, I’ve always loved his mix of suspense obviously, which he’s famous for, but entertainment, glamour, comedy, all these things you don’t think about as Hitchcock things, but they’re always there in the movies, you know. Star-power, I love creating star roles for people, you know, so I feel, I feel I’ve got a very big link with Hitchcock.

Philip Fisher: And what about your audiences, because you kind of have a choice in a way, or maybe you like to draw on lots of different audiences, but it’s a mixture of film people, dance people, theatre people, etc. so do you have anyone in mind when you’re writing?

Matthew Bourne: Well, not really, I try and please everyone I think. I sometimes used to think that was a failing, you know. Just to try and please everyone is quite hard, you know, but I do try and do that in some ways. I think if I was only playing to a dance audience we wouldn’t survive as a company, you know, we have to, the productions have to work for a certain length of time, you know, we have to play, that’s why our seasons are longer. If we didn’t, if our audience didn’t reach beyond the dance audience, which of course it has, you know, now, we couldn’t survive. So I do make it for anyone really who’s willing to come and give this kind of work a chance, because it often does take that for people if they think, “Oh, I don’t really like dance, or I don’t, it’s not, I don’t think that’s what I like,” and they need to, someone to tell them usually, a friend, you know, “Oh, I know you don’t like this normally, but come and see this,” and they’re the sort of people I’m looking for in an audience, and I’m bearing in mind when I’m making the work. I believe that you don’t have to have read anything before you see it. I don’t need people to know anything about dance or the story they’re about to see, or to have read a scenario, some people come in and say, “Where’s the scenario?” you know, because they’re so used to that with ballet and opera, that you have to have read it beforehand, and I don’t agree with that. So I think about the person who’s come to see this with an open mind and who just sits there, and the curtain goes up and you tell them a story, and that’s the basis on which I tell a story, that the person sitting there knows nothing, and that I want to grab them, very early on, and I want to involve them in the first few minutes, and I want to make them laugh in the first few minutes so they’ve relaxed, and then take them on a journey — and that’s my way of working.

Philip Fisher: It sounds as if it ought to be everyone’s way of working.

Matthew Bourne: (Laughs) Well I think it is many people’s way of working, you know, or certainly the directors I’ve worked with, Trevor Nunn, Richard Eyre, Sam Mendes, all those people, they too can [work in] very basic terms in that way you know, “How will the audience know this?”, “Are we clear here?”, “What do we get from this?” You have got to put yourself in the position of people who have not done all the research you’ve done, and read on the background and, you know, what do they actually get? It’s quite difficult to put yourself in that position, sometimes, to sort of not know anything, and watch this thing and think, “Hmm, that’s not coming across, that’s not clear”, and in Trevor’s case, and people like that, it would be like, “That word wasn’t clear, I don’t think we heard what you said there.” You know that kind of thing is so important; I think that’s what a director’s job is.

Philip Fisher: You mentioned three theatre directors there, and your work has been shown in theatres as well as opera houses, and goodness knows where else around the world, do you think that you will ever adapt and go into straight theatre, or you’re happy with dance?

Matthew Bourne: I like doing what I’m doing at the moment and I love having a company, it’s a privilege to have a company where you can do your own work. And very few people have that, you know, to actually think, “Oh I’m going to adapt this book”, or “I’m going to adapt this movie”, or, and to be able to make it happen, you know, “Or I’ve got this idea”, so I sort of intend to do that as my prime thing really. You know I would like to direct a play one day maybe, I love working with actors and there are a lot of actors I really love, you know, and I always get on very well with actors and they always seem to respond to what I say to them and to want more, you know, so I feel I could do it, but I would need to have a take on something, you know a play and I think, “What about if we did it in this way?” I’d have to have an idea that got me excited about doing it, because I get sent scripts sometimes, and it’s an odd thing this, whenever I read a script I almost feel like “Oh, well there it is, it’s done.” I don’t read a script and think, “Oh how can this be staged?” because so much of my work is about writing the story, developing it with the performers, it’s all, I suppose, developed together, eventually, and I feel half the work is done, and I sort of enjoy reading it like a book, and then I think. “Oh well that’s that then. You know, there it is, this script”, and I don’t have that sort of imagination, my, the way my mind works is very different I think. So, and words, as well, is not something I deal with enormously. So reading a script, a director would often look at a script and think, “Oh this needs to go, that needs to”, you know, I don’t think like that. I need to be there with the performers to feel the thing, so the work, a lot of the work will happen in the rehearsal room.

Philip Fisher: How difficult is it to have several shows running around the world at the same time?

Matthew Bourne: I don’t, there’s not too many, I always make it so that I can be there and I can have an involvement; there’s never been a show of mine going on where I’m not involved. Obviously, you know, with the musicals, because Poppins, is in London and on Broadway, and I will visit that from time to time if I’m there, but they get taken care of by resident people. But my own company, I never reproduce shows, it’s always my company doing them, people who’ve worked with me for a long time, you know; it’s always ‘the company’ and when we toured Edward Scissorhands around the States a lot of the people out of New York were surprised it was the original company, they’re so used to getting a touring company. So I always want them to feel special, even Swan Lake which has been going for quite some time, it should feel like an event, it shouldn’t feel like there’s several of them going around, you know.

Philip Fisher: You mentioned Mary Poppins, I suppose I should draw you in on the musicals and talk a little bit; that’s a sort of a different side to your life in a way.

Matthew Bourne: Yeah, musicals, I’ve done the one’s I really wanted to do, and I’ve never done a musical as a job, in a way, they’ve always been passions, you know, things I couldn’t turn down. When I was offered Oliver I thought, “Oh yeah of course, I have to do that”, and My Fair Lady, oh, wonderful, you know, what a great thing to be able to do. And same with Poppins, I mean Cameron first talked to me about it when we were doing Oliver in 94, and he played me one of the songs that George Stiles and Anthony Drew wrote, ‘Practically Perfect’, which was fully orchestrated and sung by Claire Moore, in his office, you know, and it was virtually the version we ended up with, all those years ago, and I said, you know, “If ever this happens, please don’t forget me, you know, I’ll be the tea boy on it. I just want to do it.” And so, bless him, he did, you know involve me when it came about, but we talked about it many times over the years, “How’s it going? Could it happen?” Obviously it was to do with getting the rights sorted out with Disney, but, and coming together like they did, but, yeah I’ve, they’ve always been like passions that I was desperate to do, and, so I haven’t done very many, and I may do, I may do some in the future but I’ve got no plans to at the moment. But they are very different in some ways, and very much the same in other ways; they’re always about telling a story, which is the approach I have, and what you deal with in a musical is lots of different levels of movement skill, you know, so you have your dancers, you have your character people who move well, and you have your actors who don’t move so well, or people with great voices who can’t put one foot in front of the other, and you’ve got all these people that you have to sort of mix together, and create numbers on different levels of what they can do, which is the skill of a musical, musical-storytelling, I would say, rather than a dance-musical as such. So the approach is different, and also I think with musicals you, you’re almost required in some ways to sort of stop the show a few times, you know, in the evening, and whereas in my own shows I don’t think like that, I think of a story that’s sort of told throughout the evening, through movement, and it’s got a development, it’s a different sort of process, whereas you’ve got to have your number just before the end of the first half that sends everyone out very happy, there, and you’ve got to have your ‘eleven o’clock number’, as they call it, which is normally at about, you know, quarter to ten; you know, it’s a different structure, so, but equally, equally fun, and I love doing the musicals because of the collaboration with the people I’ve had the chance to work with; I’ve learnt so much from the people I’ve worked with.

Philip Fisher: And what does the future hold for Matthew Bourne, do you know?

Matthew Bourne: Well, it may sound a bit boring, because I don’t really have anything to tell you, in some ways, only that I know that I want to devote the next few years to my company, you know, and really to develop that further, and the international touring that we do and the partners that we have, and reviving Car Man, and Nutcracker at Christmas. But I, what I’m doing over the next 18 months I suppose, is, is really taking time out to think about what to do next. I feel as though I’ve done a lot of things I’ve always wanted to do. And now it’s the time to think, what, where do I go from here? Do I keep doing shows, you know, in a similar vein, or do I think, do I come up with something different, like I did with Play Without Words, you know, something a little bit more experimental. So that’s what I’m looking to now, and I’m turning down everything else, to be able to concentrate on thinking, because I’ve got to a time in my life where I need to go back to my inspiration a bit and find inspiration a bit, and I’ve got enough going on to keep me busy, but with new work I think I need to explore a lot more, now.

Philip Fisher: Matthew Bourne, thank you very much indeed.

Matthew Bourne: Thank you