New Adventures

In conversation with Sir Matthew Bourne

1 Matthew Bourne's Early Adventures “The Infernal Galop.” Photograph by Johan Persson

One of the “little upgrades” of having been knighted, said renowned director and choreographer Matthew Bourne, was being able to score tickets to “Hamilton.” And while Sir Matthew received one of the United Kingdom’s highest honors last year for services to dance from the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace, he seems even more excited and—yes—astonished at the 30th anniversary of his troupe, New Adventures. Founded in 1987 and formerly called Adventures in Motion Pictures, it is a resident company at Sadler’s Wells.

“It’s amazing to still be doing what I’m doing,” exclaimed Bourne by phone from his home in London, “because, unlike a national company, the Royal Ballet [for example], we’ve really relied on audiences. I’m still here because of that—people buying tickets and our having trust in audiences and building them.”

Los Angeles theatergoers are no exception: Since making its North American debut in 1997 with his triumphant “Swan Lake” at the Ahmanson Theatre, Bourne’s troupe has returned with numerous productions over the years, including “Cinderella” in 1999, “Edward Scissorhands” in 2006, and “Sleeping Beauty,” in 2013. Unmitigated successes, these provocative and highly entertaining shows that highlight Bourne’s exceptional storytelling gifts, musicality and ability to imbue characters with drama as well as offering trenchant humor, have helped build an enormous amount of good will, simultaneously creating a near rabid fan base in Southern California.

Now these audiences will be able to see an earlier Bourne, when the British dance innovator returns to the City of Angels, this time to the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, May 17-21. Matthew Bourne’s Early Adventures, a sleek, nine-member troupe, features a program of three works dating from 1989-1991, dances that harken back to the founder’s roots, a fertile period when he began excavating his memories and joy of pastiche that would mature into his inimitable brand of stage wizardry.

A touring program that the Independent called “witty and unexpectedly touching,” the pieces find the dancemaker in playful, loving and, well, somewhat naughty mode. Bourne, who last December debuted his dazzling production of “The Red Shoes” in the UK, and which lands at the Ahmanson in mid-September for two weeks, is famously known for continuously tweaking and revising his works. Not so, however, with these early numbers.

“I wanted them to be as they were, especially in L.A.,” explained Bourne, “where people have seen a lot of my work over the years. And all the pieces are works I’ve danced in and choreographed on my own body.

“They have a good feel for me,” continued Bourne. “I’ve got a good muscle memory as well as watching memory, and they’re as entertaining as other pieces, but on a smaller scale. They show the mark I wanted to make, and I wouldn’t have revisited them if I didn’t think they worked still.”

Sir Matthew Bourne. Photograph by Hugo Glendinning

Bourne, who was recently recognized with the 2016 Critics’ Circle Distinguished Service to Art Award, is also not one to shy away from emotion. “I watch these pieces,” he admits, “and I’ve got tears running down my face. I love the music, the atmosphere and audiences are really taking to them.”

The works feature lush sounds by artists such as Percy Grainger, Edward Elgar, Noël Coward, and most of the “stuff” Bourne says he fell in love with and “wanted other people to hear. It was very much an expression of me at that time,” he enthused, “and my favorite things.”

Of the works, “Watch with Mother” is akin to a schoolyard romp, while “The Infernal Galop,” a wacky love letter to 1930’s Paris, rocks with black berets, Gauloises and a male trio in a pissoir, climaxing in Offenbach’s—what else—“Can Can.” The delightful, “Town and Country,” also imbued with childlike humor, is an homage to one of Bourne’s influences, Frederick Ashton, replete with a nod to the clog dance of “La Fille mal gardée.”

Bourne, whom Time magazine once dubbed, “the world’s most popular living dance maker,” counts two Freds as inspirations—Ashton and Astaire. “They are great entertainers,” he said. “Ashton was so versatile and eager to entertain, actually. He was someone who would often use music that people thought was less important—quite light music, but he said, ‘I love it,’ and he knew what the public liked.

“Astaire to me is still someone who taught the world about dancing,” noted Bourne. “He made it feel like dancing was the most natural thing in the world—like it’s for everyone and isn’t mysterious. I think Fred did a lot to encourage that. Gene Kelly, too, and there are lots of others that from the beginning captured me.”

Matthew Bourne’s Early Adventures in “Country.” Photograph by Johan Persson

It’s common knowledge, at least among dance aficionados, that Bourne didn’t begin dance training until he was 22. But born and raised in London, he did see a lot of theater, and even worked at the National Theatre—taking tickets and minding the bookstore—for nine fruitful years, including when his then unsalaried company was, no pun intended, finding its footing.

“The opportunity to watch great actors, again and again,” he recalled, “somehow through the repetition you learn so much. There were three theaters and the repertory turned every two to three months. I’ve got a theatrical mind,” he added, “and was also going to the [Royal] Opera House and Sadler’s Wells, always coupled with theater.”

Bourne also had an innate sense of dance, and learned from watching dance before enrolling at the Laban Centre (now Trinity Laban). Graduating in 1985, he spent another year with the college’s performance company Transitions. While at Laban, one of Bourne’s teachers happened to be Alastair Macaulay, who would become the New York Times chief dance critic in 2007, which begs the questions, ‘What did he learn from Macaulay and are they, hmm, friends?’

Bourne laughed and said, “He’s only five years older than me and we were friends. The way he taught dance history and criticism, he made me think about things in different ways. Discussing things with Alastair I tried to explain why I liked something, and why he liked something. For me, he was a great inspiration.

“I certainly wasn’t the golden boy at college,” he added, “but he was the one who said to me, ‘I think you can have a career as a choreographer.’ It’s true, he did say that—he noticed something. We’ve remained friends ever since, although he [can be] quite fearsome. He’s always had that side to him.”

What Macaulay noticed in Bourne was also spotted by theater impresario Cameron Mackintosh, the producer of, among other megahits, “Les Miserables,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Cats.” As fate would have it, Mackintosh was in the audience at Bourne’s very first “Swan Lake” in 1995, its bevy of bare-chested male swans causing quite the stir.

“He collared me in the interval,” recalled Bourne. “He almost pinned me against the wall and said, ‘This has to be in the West End. It feels like a musical and it has to have a popular audience.’ I see why he’s the great producer that he is, knowing that after seeing half the show, because at the time, a dance piece, a ballet, would never happen in the West End. But he saw it straight away, and took it to the West End.”

Another theatrical guru/Bourne believer, was the late Gordon Davidson, who died last October at 83. Founding artistic director of Center Theatre Group at the Music Center of Los Angeles from 1967-2005, Davidson helped shepherd Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” to Broadway, and in 1997, presented “Swan Lake.”

In an unprecedented move, Davidson wrote to his subscribers, offering them their money back if they didn’t like Bourne’s runaway hit. The rest, as they say, is history, with Mackintosh ultimately producing the show on Broadway, where it snagged a pair of Tony awards in 1999, for Bourne’s direction and choreography, and where Bourne gave his final performance that year, playing the Private Secretary.

Matthew Bourne’s Early Adventures in “Watch with Mother.” Photograph by Johan Persson

Paul Crewes, recently installed artistic director of the Wallis, has known of Bourne and his company for three decades, and is thrilled to be bringing Early Adventures to the Beverly Hills venue, its only American stop.

“Matthew’s had an enormous impact on the dance world,” said Crewes, whose first season at the Wallis also included presenting concerts from Limón Dance Company and Paul Taylor Dance Company, and next season will offer an equally eclectic dance mix that will feature, among others, the work of South African-based Dada Masilo.

“The contemporary dance world was having its market maybe 25 years ago,” added Crewes, “and the classical world, as well. Matthew’s broken through all of that and made it a very popular form, with much bigger audiences. He’s also bringing more people back to dance. People go see Matthew’s work who’ve never seen dance before. He’s really changed the face of dance in the UK and internationally, as well.”

So much so, in fact, that Center Theatre Group’s artistic director Michael Ritchie appointed Bourne associate artist for the next five years, meaning Angelenos will be seeing more of the man that the New Yorker called, “The most popular choreographer of theatrical dance in the Western World.”

Explained Bourne: “What Michael wanted to do was make some sort of commitment to me and the company. We do plan to come with each of our productions, but much more regularly than we have been. I love L.A. and I love the audiences, and I hope that we can develop something new together, including educational things and things for the community.”

Feeling a sense of gratitude to Los Angeles, Bourne also knows something about loyalty: His costume and set designer, Lez Brotherston, has been with him since the beginning, and Etta Murfitt, who began dancing with Bourne in 1991, is his associate director and stages all of Bourne’s shows. There are now two companies, with New Adventures made up of 26 dancers, the numbers varying depending on what shows they’re doing.

Matthew Bourne’s Early Adventures in “The Infernal Galop.” Photograph by Johan Persson

As to what he looks for in a dancer, Bourne seeks individuality, “and as much diversity as possible in a company and as much individuality of personality—not that they look the same with a standard body,” he explained. “People who are passionate about moving and performing, they’re not necessarily actors when they join, but the beginning of acting is being generous and having the ability to tell a story. That’s what I look for.”

Bravura acting, dancing and musical choices naturally permeate Bourne’s newest work, “The Red Shoes.” Based on the 1948 film by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell that starred ballerina Moira Shearer as the dancer made to choose between life and art, Bourne’s version features music that he culled from the late Bernard Herrmann’s oeuvre, and was assembled by Terry Davies.

Bourne said that this ballet had been on his to-do list for quite some time.

“The problem was that I didn’t know what music to use. I was thinking about a Bernard Hermann project and when I thought about putting the two together, that’s when I thought it would work. Not a Herrmann score from Hitchcock [Psycho or Vertigo, for example], but from his earlier work—that’s what made it happen.”

Bourne said he conducted a workshop two years ago, using Herrmann’s music. “I found it easy to choreograph to and wonderfully dramatic. Everything seemed to work.”

Reviewers agreed, with the Guardian’s David Jays writing, “Bourne makes juicy movement the index of creative passion.” And while he’s at the top of his game and extremely busy with current projects, Bourne, whose honors also include multiple Olivier Awards and the 2017 Trailblazer in Dance and Theatre award from the International Institute of Dance and Theatre, points out that he’s constantly on the prowl for something that will spark his imagination.

“It’s hard to not be like that. I’m always looking for the next piece, always thinking, always looking in bookshops—those that are left—and looking at films.”

Indeed, Bourne’s “The Car Man,” was based on the noir film of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and set to the music of Bizet’s “Carmen,” and “Play Without Words” took its cue from Joseph Losey’s film, The Servant (both were also presented in Los Angeles).

Added the director, “I’ve done quite a lot of the pieces I’ve wanted to do, the big famous ballets and things, but I do need to find new things.”

When this writer offhandedly suggested a balletic version of the groundbreaking, gangster-driven television series, The Sopranos, Bourne replied with glee in his voice, “I was actually thinking about doing a version of The Godfather.”

If that sounds like an offer Sir Matthew Bourne can’t refuse, only time will tell.

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