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Bourne_Matthew 01

Matthew Bourne

Matthew Bourne

First Published 17 April 2008, Last Updated 24 April 2020

Seven years after its premiere, Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man is enjoying a revival tour that is currently on its London leg, at Sadler’s Wells. With a string of hits behind him in a genre all of his own, Bourne’s reputation is such that audiences flock to see anything he produces. But why exactly are these unique dance shows so popular? Bourne tells Caroline Bishop how he found his niche and how audiences found him…

Matthew BourneIt is funny how life turns out sometimes; how a film-obsessed kid toying with the idea of being an actor can end up being an internationally-renowned Laurence Olivier and Tony Award-winning choreographer responsible for creating a new mass audience for dance. “I was never aiming to get anywhere,” says Matthew Bourne, “I’ve never been ambitious.” He laughs.

It seems Bourne’s achievements have come as a bit of a surprise to him. Here he is, once again bringing his company New Adventures back to Sadler’s Wells (where it is a Resident Company), 20 years after Adventures In Motion Pictures, his first company, was created, with a string of popular hits – Swan Lake, Nutcracker, Highland Fling, The Car Man, Play Without Words, Edward Scissorhands – behind him. “I’ve always just focused on what I was doing and it’s become more popular,” he says simply, by way of explanation.

His latest visit to Sadler’s Wells is part of the revival tour of one of those hits, The Car Man, which premiered at the Old Vic in 2000 and garnered Bourne one of his many Laurence Olivier Award nominations. Using the music, though not the story, of Bizet’s Carmen and loosely based on the film The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Car Man tells of an adulterous affair in a small town in America in the early 1960s which leads to murder, a wrong conviction and retribution. The two-hour show contains lots sex (both hetero and homosexual), an attempted male rape and a bloody fist fight. One man is bludgeoned to death with a wrench, another is shot in the head.

It certainly has its shock value, but audiences on this revival tour, says Bourne, “have been wonderful. It’s a real mix of young and old. There’s a loyal older audience – they do like a bit of raunch I have to say!” Though not one for the school syllabus (unlike Bourne’s Swan Lake, which has been studied in schools for years), The Car Man also attracts school-age audiences. “If truth be told, they love it, you know!” Bourne laughs.

“I’ve always just focused on what I was doing and it’s become more popular”

The idea for The Car Man was sparked by Bourne’s love of Bizet’s music for Carmen – in particular Rodion Shchedrin’s 40-minute percussion and strings orchestration. Bourne commissioned frequent collaborator Terry Davies to compose another hour of music in the same vein to create a full score to which Bourne could set a dance thriller. “The music seemed to have a filmic element to it, almost like a film score,” says Bourne, whose interest in the big screen is well-documented. “We kind of put it together like a film score in a way, because we haven’t done it in any particular order of the opera as it stands, so it’s a mixture of themes and music from the opera made to suit the story we’re telling. It’s a different way of working for me, rather than working with an existing ballet score.”

Bourne’s inspiration for the story and the choreography came from filmmakers like Hitchcock, and European directors like Visconti, Fellini and Rossellini, whose neo-realist approach appealed to Bourne. “I wanted to make a piece where the acting felt natural, not heightened or melodramatic. A story that didn’t have any fantasy sequences in it, just a straightforward story about real people,” he explains.

The Car ManThe influence of film is also evident in the way The Car Man is staged and lit. The story includes a flashback scene, slow motion sequences and lighting used to create the idea of a close-up, timed with the score for dramatic effect. “The idea of film is in my head a lot, but of course it ends up being an incredibly theatrical idea eventually because it’s on stage and it’s happening in front of you,” says Bourne.

His interest in film goes back a long way, well before he started a degree in dance theatre at the Laban Centre in his early 20s. “I didn’t know much about dance until I was 20 really, so all my early life was watching films and going to the theatre, and so the mixture of those things is what I tend to be about now, in the way I tell stories. It just seems very natural to me to use those images and ideas.”

It seems surprising then, that Bourne didn’t develop his career in the direction of film. He says he doesn’t know entirely what led him to dance instead. “When I was a kid I thought I wanted to be an actor or something to do with the theatre or entertainment in some form or other. I tried acting when I was 15, I went to classes at Mountview and I actually hated using my voice, I was very self-conscious. So that might have had a part in it – that when I actually went into it, it wasn’t quite the thing for me.”

In dance he found a way to express himself and tell stories without having to bear this vocal self-consciousness. “I loved playing characters and telling stories and it became a mission in a way, how far can you go in telling a story without speaking.”

Since then, storytelling through dance has been the basis of all Bourne’s work and it is this which marks him and his company out from other dance companies. “It still fascinates me now,” he says, “it still interests me enough to want to keep doing it, and I feel like we’re one of the few companies that does that. I could direct plays and things – I go to the theatre all the time – but it would feel like I was one of many in some ways then, and I feel like I’ve got something that’s mine.”

“It became a mission in a way, how far can you go in telling a story without speaking”

Bourne’s fundamental ability for clear storytelling is what has contributed to the popularity of his shows, both with audiences, who don’t need a programme with a synopsis to understand what is going on – “anyone can come and they don’t need to know anything before they watch it, and it’s as simple as that” – and with dancers, who see in Bourne’s shows the opportunity to test their acting skills more than they would with an abstract or traditional dance company. “There are a lot of dancers in major companies who would love to be in some of these pieces because they can see the challenge of the roles, and the acting side of it is something they’ve become more interested in through performing,” Bourne explains. “These roles, particularly in The Car Man, have become much sought after because they are very good acting roles.”

Whatever the criticisms that have been levelled at Bourne over the years by the dance press, his shows remain popular with an audience that is not necessarily used to seeing dance. This, feels Bourne, is proof his critics are missing the point. “I think the views of the few are not very relevant to the large audience that we have,” he says calmly. “I sort of know what they are saying, but it’s completely irrelevant to the audience that we are playing to. To most people who come to see us, it’s the most amazing dance they’ve ever seen.”

Bourne (left), with Arlene Phillips
and Stephen Mear at the
Laurence Olivier AwardsHe doesn’t say this to be immodest, more that Bourne is aware that his audiences are not made up of dance aficionados, and nor did he set out to cater for such people. The type of show that New Adventures produces has its own audience bracket, somewhere between dance and musical, which puts the company in a unique position. “I don’t think any of the dance writers understand the popularity of this work,” he says. “If they came out on tour here and saw the kind of reaction that we get… I don’t think they know how much we perform as well. I mean, this company performs more than any other company in the UK, possibly in the world.”

It is quite a statement for the unambitious Bourne, who was more than happy with the small scale of AMP when he first formed the company in 1987. “We started very small. To me it felt big, it didn’t feel like it was this little company, it felt like, how amazing to be doing our own work and touring. We used to tour round in a minibus and roll out our own floor to dance on, iron our costumes, do our show and put it all away at the end and get in the minibus. I loved it, never thought it would necessarily get any bigger than that, but that was enough at the time.”

The company was launched into the limelight on an international scale with Bourne’s production of Swan Lake in 1995, which surprised the world with an all-male cast and was given a major promotion boost by its inclusion at the end of the film Billy Elliot. “It changed my life, changed a lot of the lives of [people] associated with it because it took us into a different area completely – in the West End, to Broadway, around the world,” says Bourne. “It did things that you never would have dreamt it could have done. You wouldn’t have predicted that you would have been winning Tony Awards for Swan Lake for God’s sake, it’s ridiculous to think about it. So it was one shock and surprise after another really.”

Bourne was able to capitalise on this success with new works like The Car Man and Play Without Words, which won two Laurence Olivier Awards (Best Theatre Choreographer and Best Entertainment) in 2003. “The thing I’m most grateful for really is the fact that we could follow it up and keep going and keep having new productions, and that the audiences have come with us. That’s the exciting thing. Swan Lake is still going strong and it will keep coming back. But the fact that the audience wants to see more, that’s the important thing.”

“To most people who come to see us, it’s the most amazing dance they’ve ever seen”

Success also led him to co-choreograph, with Stephen Mear, the musical adaptation of Mary Poppins in the West End (and now on Broadway). Though Poppins was something Bourne had wanted to do for 10 years – “it was an absolute must for me” – he has no more plans for choreographing musicals, as developing New Adventures is where his focus really lies. “I’m putting all my time into the company for the next few years,” he says. “It’s such a privilege having a company, the fact you can do your own work. When you are a choreographer or a director in the open market you have to try and make these projects happen or wait until you’re asked to do something. If I have an idea, I can do it. I’m really grateful for that. So I think that’s really what I enjoy doing and want to do.” He adds: “If Cameron [Mackintosh – Mary Poppins’s producer] came to me with an idea, because he’s been so great with me over the years, I’d seriously consider it, but I’m really turning down everything like that for the moment to concentrate on the company.”

There is still much to concentrate on. Following a hectic touring schedule New Adventures is back in the UK for the time being, and Bourne has several new projects in the pipeline. Meanwhile, Nutcracker – still going strong after 15 years – is back at Sadler’s Wells this Christmas. And, though it is not an ambition or anything: “There is still work to be done because I think there are still people out there who wouldn’t dream of coming to anything that had dance attached to it.”

Bourne is undoubtedly enjoying an extremely fruitful career, and it has all come about simply by doing what he loves. “Nothing has ever felt difficult,” he says. “I’ve always been grateful for it in a way because I did start so late I never assumed I would have much of a career anyway.”

The Car Man plays at Sadler’s Wells until 5 August.



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