Matthew Bourne on breaking barriers and the longest kiss in dance history
Matthew Bourne may be one of the world’s pre-eminent choreographers, but he also has something in common with those of us whose dance expertise is limited to the sequins and sparkle of Saturday night’s Strictly Come Dancing.
“I’m a massive fan,” he confides. “I never miss it.”
This may seem an unusual admission from a man garlanded with awards from Tonys to Oliviers, not to mention a knighthood, for his innovative work. From an all-male ballet corps in Swan Lake to a Cinderella set in the Blitz, 63-year-old Bourne is famed for bringing new dimensions to age-old stories. But as he points out, while the high-minded may snipe, Strictly has sprinkled its fairy dust far and wide, reaching those who would once never have dreamed of going anywhere near a cha-cha-cha.
“The thing I fell in love with the show for originally, and still love, is that moment when someone realises they love dancing, and get very emotional because they never saw themselves moving like that,” he says. “But I also love the way it champions disability, and the fact that dance is for everyone.”
Strictly was the first show to have same-sex couples dancing together on prime-time telly. In 2020, boxer Nicola Adams was paired with professional dancer Katya Jones.
It has gone on to feature same-sex couples ever since. “We can’t overestimate how amazing that was in front of a family audience on BBC One,” says Bourne. “They beat all the world’s ballet companies to that, and it was an incredible moment.”
The same could be said when, in November 1995, the then relatively little known Bourne unveiled his all-male version of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake at London’s Sadler’s Wells. Dubbed “the gay Swan Lake”, it was an immediate sensation, but also caused controversy.
“Some people found it difficult,” he recalls. “A lot of the traditionalists in the ballet world certainly did and we had walk-outs in some audiences, or little girls in tears as it wasn’t the Swan Lake they were expecting to see. Now, years later, no one thinks twice about it, so things have moved on massively.”
Either way, Bourne’s genre-busting Swan Lake was the making of him: it won an Olivier and a Tony award after he took the production Stateside. He became the toast of LA, invited to lunch by Barbra Streisand and Warren Beatty (Streisand still sends him a Christmas card).
It’s an almost storybook narrative arc for the boy who grew up in London’s East End, hanging around stage doors collecting the autographs of stars who would later become his friends and peers.
Imbued with a love of the arts by his theatre-mad parents – his mum was a secretary, while his father worked for Thames Water – Bourne spent his formative years watching musicals and plays, “lapping it up” as he puts it, from the cheapest seats in the house. “I never dreamt I would ever sit in the stalls. I was quite happy that I was even there.”
At home he had put on his own shows from the age of five, teaching himself to dance along the way. “I would have called it ‘doing a number’. My instinct was always to direct and put on a show,” he says.
He auditioned for dance school aged 21 and now admits it’s a puzzle why he didn’t do so earlier. “Maybe that was just the world that I was in,” he says. “My parents were extremely supportive. They used to make costumes for me and all sorts of stuff. But it never occurred to us to look at formal training.”
Bourne ultimately completed an honours degree in contemporary dance, but his interest shifted to choreography and aged 27 he co-founded his own dance troupe, then set up his own company, New Adventures.
“I don’t like being the sole person in charge. You can’t have all the good ideas”
There have been many critical and commercial triumphs since, from 2005’s worldwide sell-out Edward Scissorhands to last year’s The Car Man, a reinterpretation of Bizet’s Carmen. In 2016 he was knighted for services to dance and is pleased as punch about it.
“I know there are a lot of people who are against the honours system, but the majority of people who get them are just ordinary people who do amazing things,” he says.
“For them it’s the proudest day of their lives, a lovely moment with their families.”
The same year he also received the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award – one of the most coveted honours in the world of dance – at Buckingham Palace, presented by the late Queen.
“It will stay with me forever, this door opening and this small lady in this beautifully lit room with the biggest, most welcoming smile. It was magic,” he says. “I can’t even remember what was said. That was the trick with the Queen, I think. When you come away you can’t remember.”
With such career pinnacles, Bourne could surely afford to rest on his laurels. Instead he is busier than ever: when we speak, there are three Bourne productions either on or in rehearsals, among them a revival of Edward Scissorhands, returning in time for the Christmas season.
“It’s one of those stories which, like a lot of fairy tales, has a lot to say. Edward is an outsider, but the hands represent anything that’s different about anyone, and therefore we can all identify with him in some way. And it’s about how people treat people who are different, so it’s very relevant.”
Currently also touring is his 2019 production of Romeo and Juliet, with the young lovers incarcerated in an unidentified institution and the piece touching on knife crime and mental health.
“We did it four years ago and it feels, coming back, very much like it’s set in America, where all the advancements made over several years in gay rights, trans rights, women’s rights, are going backwards,” he says. “But it still manages to have humour, and it captures first love. When young people fall for each other, they go for it. So we have what we think is the longest kiss in dance history.”
He loves to collaborate. “I don’t like being the sole person in charge,” he says. “You can’t have all the good ideas and it’s good to be with people who will say, ‘That’s a stupid idea.’ I want people who will disagree with me.”
Bourne is working with the 82-year-old veteran actor Julia Mckenzie, co-directing the forthcoming Stephen Sondheim tribute Old Friends, a big Broadway production packed with what he calls “a smorgasbord of showstoppers”.
“She’s an absolute darling,” he says of a star who has performed in more than her fair share of Sondheim spectaculars. “She’s wonderful and passionate and I need her because she’s my direct link to Sondheim, whom I never met. She is a font of great knowledge and wisdom, and brilliant ideas.”
He admits to sleepless nights caused by juggling three live – and very contrasting – productions, but feels robust enough to handle it.
“While physically I can’t do what I used to, I’ve got the mental capacity for a lot of work, and hopefully that continues,” he says.
Happily settled in a long-term partnership with fellow choreographer Arthur Pita, in their downtime the couple scuttle from their London home to a flat on the seafront in Brighton. “It’s fantastic, it’s just an hour from London and it’s like a mini holiday.”
As for unfulfilled ambitions, Bourne is candid enough to admit there aren’t any. “It’s probably not a great place artistically to be in, but I feel so satisfied with what I’ve done,” he says. “I only have ambition to continue. It is a wonderful thing, and I’m very grateful for it.”
Written by Kathryn Knight