Matthew Bourne, interview: ‘Everyone wants to be funded properly... I didn’t even think about money,

Published
19/11/2015 by

Ollivier will sadly no longer be found outside the stage door with a cigarette. He was killed in a collision with a car in Clerkenwell in August, just a few hours before he was due to perform in the final night of Bourne’s show The Car Man.

The company, on a high that day thanks to a successful season and revved up for the last show and an after-party at Bourne’s house, were floored by the news. “It was an extraordinary thing to happen,” says Bourne. “It was a terrible shock.” 

That night’s performance was cancelled, but they still gathered at Bourne’s house to share their grief. “So we were all together that night, and that was a good thing.”

Bourne’s company is known for its close, family ethos, bonded by long tours in the UK and abroad. Ollivier, who had put his stamp on leading roles in Bourne’s Swan Lake and Play Without Words as well as The Car Man, was an experienced dancer who everyone looked up to. 

Known for his charismatic masculinity, muscular power and old-fashioned smouldering sex appeal, he excelled at playing dark anti-heroes (he also played Heathcliff and Dracula for Northern Ballet), but as Bourne says, Ollivier was more complex than that. “He could be very tender as well, he enjoyed finding that mix, the masculinity and the vulnerability.” 

Off stage, the dancer was “quite a cheeky guy”, says Bourne, “but you always knew where you were with him. He was very professional, very gentlemanly, actually. And very loyal.”

A show celebrating Ollivier’s life has been planned at Sadler’s Wells in January, featuring companies Ollivier danced with throughout his career, but Bourne’s dancers feel they are playing tribute every time they get on stage. “He was such a great, ‘get on with it’ kind of guy,” says Bourne. “They’re finding that getting on with their work feels like a good way of celebrating him. It’s something everyone’s living with every day at the moment,” he says. “Getting back to work has been a good thing.”

The work in hand at the moment is a Christmas season for Bourne’s show Sleeping Beauty, which has racked up 300 performances worldwide since it first debuted at Sadler’s Wells in 2012. It’s the third piece in his Tchaikovsky trilogy (following Swan Lake and Nutcracker!) and as with all of Bourne’s work, he takes a familiar story and gives it a twist, making Sleeping Beauty’s prince a childhood sweetheart who survives her century of sleep by turning himself into a vampire — a gothic horror rewrite that was very on-trend.

There will be some new dancers this time round. Twenty-two-year-old Cordelia Braithwaite has been fast-tracked into leading roles. “She’s a real special talent,” says Bourne, 55. “She’s got this wonderful quality of movement that just can stun you sometimes. She doesn’t know how good she is.” 

Then there’s Liam Mower, one of the original Billy Elliots in the stage musical, now a mainstay of Bourne’s company. “He’s probably the most technically talented dancer we’ve ever had in the company,” says Bourne. “He will add nuance and detail and things he’s not even asked to do and you just go, ‘Oh! Keep doing that!’” 

Regular faces will return too, including long-time lead Dominic North (last seen in the title role in Bourne’s Edward Scissorhands) who’s got a real fan following, and more Twitter followers than Hofesh Shechter, Bourne tells me, which in dance is a big deal.

While we’re talking about Shechter, conversation turns to the statement he issued earlier in the year with fellow choreographers Akram Khan and Lloyd Newson, bemoaning the standard of UK-trained dancers. Unlike them, Bourne has no problem finding talented dancers here. “All my company are British trained,” he says (although not all British-born), but he’ll admit they mostly come from ballet and musical theatre training, where technique and a sense of showmanship are strong. Contemporary dancers tend to be more introspective, he says.

Bourne takes pride in bringing new dancers up through the company and he’s keen to nurture choreographers as well. “I feel the frustration of a lot of young choreographers,” he says. “It’s terribly difficult. If you’re a writer at least you can sit in a room and write something, you only need paper and a pen. But with dance you do need space and dancers and a way to present your work. I think we lose a lot of great choreographers because they just don’t get the chance to do it.”

Bourne himself, though, is a great example of someone who just got on with it. An inveterate putter-on of shows as a child in Walthamstow he came to formal training late, at 22, and set up his own company not long out of college, performing and touring on a shoestring with a merry band of pals, working part-time to fund it all. 

When he speaks to young choreographers now he finds they have a different attitude. “Everyone wants everything quickly and wants to be funded properly and to be paid properly,” he says. “Of course they’re right,” he adds, “but all I can say is we didn’t do that. I didn’t even think about money, I just wanted to do it.”

Luckily, Bourne’s instinct for entertainment and his signature combination of dance, theatre, humour and storytelling had popular audience appeal and soon built a following. But even though he’s probably the most successful choreographer in the country, he still works unashamedly hard at promoting every performance. “Every day I’m thinking: How can I sell tickets, how can I promote the show today?” he says. 

He’s active on social media, and on the day we meet, has just posted a photo of his very cute and pointy eared puppy, Ferdinand, who he owns with partner Arthur Pita, also a choreographer.

Sometimes promotion doesn’t go exactly the way Bourne intends. A recent comment he made about the blurring of boundaries between ballet and contemporary dance led to “Bourne says ballet is dead”-type headlines. Actually he thinks ballet is in rude health, partly because of its exploration of contemporary movement, singling out Tamara Rojo’s takeover of English National Ballet. “To be honest, that company was going nowhere for a while and we all thought it was going to disappear. And then she came in.” It’s contemporary dance that he thinks isn’t in such a good place at the moment. “Not such interesting commissions, not so daring,” he says.

For Bourne, though, things look good. He’s been choreographing for almost 30 years and while he’s constantly being asked to do new things, especially to make films, he loves the camaraderie of a company and the thrill of a live audience too much to switch to cinema. “The company’s always been the main thing for me,” he says. “Even more so now. I like live interaction and I like to feel the audience.” A true man of the theatre; even in a time of sadness for the company, the show goes on.