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Bourne to be mild

ACTORS AND directors often stop Matthew Bourne in the corridor to say, "Don't I know you from somewhere?" Anyone else would be flattered. Anyone else would assume they knew him as the man who landed one of the most lucrative jobs in dance, choreographing the new Oliver! at the Palladium, or as the founder-director of the witty theatre-dance group Adventures in Motion Pictures. But Bourne doesn't give himself airs. They know him from the theatre all right - from the nine years he spent at the National Theatre, manning the bookshop. He finds it rather amusing.

At 35, he still looks the part. Soft, comfortable clothing and a friendly, floppy haircut. "Samuel Beckett? Bottom shelf, second row on the right . . ." All those years of being polite and helpful when he might have been polishing his theatrical hauteur have helped him to become one of the nicest young men in the business.

But Bourne's fresh-faced charm co-exists with downright cheek. His version of The Nutcracker in 1992 not only did away with the tutus, but most of the story as known and loved by generations of Christmas ballet-goers. His orphanage-waif Clara got the hots for her Nutcracker Prince when he emerged from the toy box as a bare-chested Chippendale, and practically swooned when he whisked her away to a Sweetieland inhabited by marshmallow Doris Day clones and fruitgums on motorbikes. Every note of Tchaikovsky was in place, but every step of the original choreography was swept away. Far from being outraged, audiences and critics adored it, and the show (intended for one season) ran until the sets were ragged.

All this from a lad from Hackney who had his first ballet lesson at 22. He is the first to point out that he is not "a technical dancer", but he reckons it's just as well "not to be too tied to technique or you end up using the same positions all the time". His strength, he thinks, lies in his wealth of early influences: old Fred Astaire films on the telly, musicals, Disney cartoons, Seventies contemporary dance, and Frederick Ashton ballets at Covent Garden. Eclectic is the word.

And this education started early. Even as a little boy, he would organise school friends to rehash favourite shows - "Anything with a bit of singing and dancing in it, like Mary Poppins, and I always gave myself the best parts" - but a precocious stage career was nipped in the bud when, at 14, he heard someone say he was "a bit of a show-off". Mortified, he threw his energies into his other theatrical love - autograph hunting.

Almost every night after school he and a friend would take the No 38 bus from suburban Walthamstow to the West End where they'd hang around stage doors or track down stars to their homes. Often - whether in recognition of enthusiasm or audacity - the boys would be given free tickets to the shows. "So by the time I was 19, I was going to the theatre or the ballet two or three times a week. Lack of money never stopped us seeing anything we wanted: West End musicals, contemporary dance at Sadler's Wells, even the Royal Ballet."

While others went off to college, Bourne stayed at home ("I'd had it with education") and did his first stint at the NT till, to save up for a trip to Hollywood (autograph book at the ready). Later, sobered by more nine-to-five in the bookshop, he reconsidered, and at 22 signed up for four years at the London Laban Centre: ballet classes, choreography, acting, the lot. It was in the final year that he teamed up with fellow graduates to form a company.

Nobody could have dreamt up such a mouthful of a name as Adventures in Motion Pictures - someone spotted the words printed on a plastic bag. But it sticks in the mind and perfectly describes the filmic quality of the company's work, from Town & Country, a satire of English mores, to Deadly Serious, their dance homage to Alfred Hitchcock.

Since The Nutcracker, though, Bourne has found a niche creating new versions of the classics that thrive on parody. For the last year he has been working on a version of Swan Lake, to be seen in November. All he will say at this stage is that the swans of the corps de ballet will be danced by men (and not, emphatically not, in tutus), and that the intention is to capture the essence of the original, not to mock. Signing up the Royal Ballet star Adam Cooper as the solo swan shows he means it.

This week, Adventures in Motion Pictures revives Bourne's 1994 reworking of another sacred number, Les Sylphides, under the title Highland Fling - a Romantic Wee Ballet, which relocates the action to a Glasgow tenement with the hero as an unemployed welder. It will be the first time dance has been billed at the Don-mar Warehouse since Sam Mendes revamped the venue.

Bourne first met Mendes when he was offered the job of "musical staging" for the new Oliver!. There had been no choreographer as such for the original stage show, but Bourne "took it upon myself to put in as much dance as possible". Reading between the lines, this led to several clashes with director Mendes ("He had a fear of the show becoming too obvious, too up front"), but any differences have now apparently been resolved. This is just as well considering that Oliver! could keep both men in work for life if that was what they wanted, which of course they don't. Bourne has a hankering to do more musicals, perhaps with AMP, perhaps with Mendes. He fancies a revival of something close to his heart, something that will stir memories in his own generation. He likes the idea that the original Oliver! opened the year he was born. "Now what about Mary Poppins . . . ?"

! `Highland Fling': Donmar Warehouse, WC2 (071-369 1732), from Tuesday to 8 April.