Edward Scissorhands: Dance at the cutting edge

'Edward Scissorhands' is the latest in a string of works by Matthew Bourne that have made ballet cool. Alice Jones joins the choreographer at rehearsals
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The Independent Culture

I'm sitting in the darkened auditorium of the Theatre Royal in Plymouth, peering over the top of two identical bird's-nest barnets that would make The Cure's Robert Smith proud. The owners of these magnificent hairpieces whisper to one another and occasionally gesticulate, flinging an alarming fist of scissors in my direction.

To my right, a diminutive dancer in an unfeasibly short cheerleading outfit worries about getting a bikini wax, while two male dancers debate the relative merits of wearing Y-fronts or cycling shorts underneath their combat trousers. Behind me a small army of men and women, dressed in black, brandish clipboards and tap away on banks of switches.

The stage is a riot of colour: the cast mill around in neon-pink tracksuits, beribboned prom dresses, red baseball caps, fluffy slippers and studded leather jackets. A slobbily-dressed character idly tosses a (toy) baby from one hand to the other, another twirls a baton and almost everyone fiddles with the costumes they have just put on for the first time.

Suddenly a softly spoken, somewhat world-weary voice is heard above the chaos: "Right... let's work this out." This is Matthew Bourne, the choreographer-director and driving force behind the long-awaited dance version of Edward Scissorhands. It is Thursday night, and the show opens here on Monday, before an 11-week season at Sadler's Wells in London. They are just about to start rehearsing the second scene.

"We're behind, we're up against it, but there's no point in getting stressed about it," says Bourne philosophically. He sits marooned in the middle of the stalls, clutching a microphone. His manner of rehearsing is more about questioning than commanding: "Is that easier?" he asks, looking genuinely concerned when one of his dancers complains about an awkward step. "Ummm... what's happening?" he nudges gently when there is a lull in proceedings. One of the crew interrupts to offer a chocolate: "Ooh lovely," coos Bourne, noisily unwrapping it.

There is constant two-way dialogue between Bourne and the cast and crew on stage. He is far from the impatient, imperious balletmeisters of legend. "Let's go from the top!" his officious and anxious stage manager Terry announces through his face mic. "From the top of what?" puzzles Bourne. "From the top of the 'families' scene," raps Terry. "Oh right," says the director laconically. The evening ends on a high note when one of the cast bounds on stage in a ridiculous jogging outfit and the entire theatre dissolves into laughter. "You get better work done when you're enjoying it," Bourne says sagely.

When we meet the morning after the rehearsal the night before, Bourne looks a little tired but is chatty from the off. I tell him I was surprised at how relaxed his rehearsals are. "I like to think that I'm nice to work with, in the sense that I do respect people and their ideas. In turn, I expect a lot back from them," he says. "I can't bear people who just stand there and wait to be told what to do all the time."

But surely he must shout at them sometimes? "I think I'm quite rare in that respect. Most choreographers have got a terrible reputation... They're like gods who can't be questioned. I don't think that getting results through fear is a good way of working."

He reveals that he was asked to be a judge on the original BBC series of Strictly Come Dancing. Although he praises the show, he's glad he didn't take up the offer. "I'd have been the nice judge! The encouraging one," he laughs.

Many consider that Bourne has changed the face of dance, most famously with his Swan Lake, which is still running after 10 years. He used a male corps de ballet for the swans and transplanted the classical love story into a modern-day dysfunctional royal family drama, in which the Prince falls in love with a male swan. He changed the whimsical, Scottish-themed ballet La Sylphide into Highland Fling, setting it in a Trainspotting-esque Glasgow tenement, with a sylph-like heroine who resembled a grimy, other-worldly junkie. His Cinderella lived through the Blitz and, in The Car Man, Bizet's fiery heroine Carmen became a bisexual male garage mechanic. For these and other productions, he has waltzed away with countless awards, including five Oliviers, two Tonys and an OBE.

He does not see his work as ballet, which, paradoxically, may be the secret of his success. "Sometimes you can understand why a ballet company does have limited audiences. The work I do is consciously trying to engage people who would go to the cinema or to the theatre. My company isn't upholding some kind of tradition or history. We're very free in a way to do whatever we want," Bourne says. He settles on "dance theatre" as the best description of what he does. "It is music-led theatre. Part of the time, they're not actually dancing; sometimes it's naturalistic movement, sometimes it's almost acting to counts... Someone called them 'dance-icals'. It's a bit gimmicky, but if you enjoy going to see a good musical - it's the same kind of feeling."

Given that Bourne's love of developing a narrative is equal to his love of dance, plundering films for a good story seemed the logical next step. He frequently talks in filmic terms: "It's something I love exploring - how far can you go without having to speak? How much detail can you show visually, through body language or mime? I believe you can do a close-up on stage."

He first came up with the idea of putting Edward Scissorhands on stage around eight years ago. He rewrote the script with the original screenwriter, Caroline Thompson, five years ago. Danny Elfman, the composer of the original soundtrack, has been roped in, with his original themes interwoven into a new score written by Terry Davies.

Bourne admits that he has nearly given up on the project several times during the eight-year hiatus. The original film team, from Twentieth Century Fox (which owns the title) to Elfman and finally Tim Burton himself, had to be persuaded. "They've always been very protective of it. They've never given permission for it to be exploited in any way. Rather than a financial thing, it's an emotional thing," explains Bourne, who invited them all to see his works in a bid to woo them.

Of Burton's eventual acquiescence, he says: "His reaction was very generous. It was typical of a director who really understands how directors work. He said something like, 'I don't know what it is you do but I can see it and I get it. I give it to you to do your version of it.'" He is nervous about what Burton will think of it, but buoyed by the news that Burton is bringing a large group to the London opening. "What felt nice about that is that he's not felt he has to creep in and check up on it before bringing his friends."

Bourne has a penchant for the dark and occasionally macabre in his works, and in his own life, which makes sense of the pairing with Burton. Bourne collects ventriloquists' dummies and "battered old toys with bits missing". Last year, he bought a house and has been delighted to discover 20 gravestones in the cellar. He was drawn to the property by a well-preserved 17th-century gravestone in the garden. "I found that very appealing. I think Tim would love the house - it's got a lot of history." He recounts that Charles Wesley stayed in the house in the 18th century and penned "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" while there.

Bourne has teamed up again with the designer Lez Brotherston, who created the iconic feathery legs for the male swans. Brotherston, who has worked with Bourne since 1994, has taken the story back a couple of decades to the 1950s. It is a homage to Americana, with white picket fences and pastel-coloured houses. "Lez likes things to be authentic. I'm not as strict about it; I want it to feel contemporary in terms of the younger people in it," grins Bourne, who has allowed in some modern references.

He pulls a long-suffering face when I refer to the quantity of props and costumes involved (including 47 wigs and 150 pairs of shoes). After 10 years at the top, there is little that he will deny himself on the stage: "I'm in a really privileged position for a choreographer-director. If I have an idea, I can make it happen."

Edward's magnificent costume is a case in point. In Bourne's version, he has been stitched together from an old * * brown leather sofa, and the result is an extraordinary moulded patchwork outfit. The scissor hands are 12 inches long, and have been engineered to move individually without weighing too heavily on the dancers' wrists.

Dancing with these lethal appendages in place has been a steep learning curve. At first, Edward's female partners wore goggles for safety, but soon discarded them when they couldn't see what they were doing. One scene in which Mrs Boggs dresses him in a pair of pyjamas takes several attempts before the scissors fit down the sleeves. Ever-inventive, Bourne has used the limitations of the scissors to create a new method of dancing: "You can still lift to a certain extent, you can take weight on the floor."

Getting into the costume alone take 40 minutes, without wigs and make-up. Once laced in, there is no chance of a toilet break, and Edward remains on stage for most of the show. The demanding role is shared between Sam Archer and Richard Winsor, who dance four performances a week each. Bourne spotted the potential of the two, both only 23 and best friends, early on: "Sometimes you know it before they do." Each brings a different interpretation to the role; one is more quirky and comical, the other "goes for the emotion". They have been treated equally, so neither can claim the part of Edward for himself.

Edward, Bourne says, is "the ultimate outsider" - and he knows how that feels. His desire to perform set him apart as a rather unusual child. At his junior school, he would organise shows and perform them after assembly. "I used to recreate the films I'd seen - Mary Poppins, Lady and the Tramp. I was always the star. I was always Dick Van Dyke," he twinkles. He was "obsessed" with Julie Andrews, Barbra Streisand and Fred Astaire, and his parents encouraged his love of musicals and old movies.

His next school, a boys' comprehensive in Walthamstow, east London, was not so encouraging of his talent. "It became something to hide. I hated it there, it was deathly dull." He had one friend, and together they became avid autograph-hunters, hanging around the theatres in the West End.

Sympathy for the outsider crops up throughout his work, from the sexually confused Prince in Swan Lake to Edward himself. "Edward is that boy at school whom people pick on because there's something different about him. The hands stand for anything. If they want to find something, they'll find it, and a boy dancing could be that thing."

At the precocious age of eight, Bourne "directed" a performance of Cinderella in which he swapped the gender roles. His mother has said that she knew that he was gay when he was four years old - but when did he himself first become aware of his sexuality? "I knew what I was attracted to, but I wouldn't admit it to myself until I was 18. If I look back, I was quite interested in..." (he covers his face) "... David Essex when I was about 12. I didn't know anyone who was gay, so it wasn't the easiest thing in the world. Once I'd got into the world I wanted to get into, it all became so unimportant."

He lives with his long-term partner, Arthur Pita, also a choreographer and dancer and someone who shares his broader interests. "Arthur and I love films and singers. In New York, we had a fantastic evening seeing Eartha Kitt in cabaret, in one of those little rooms with about 70 people," he beams.

After leaving school, Bourne pushed his way into the theatre via various odd jobs - in the bookshop of the National Theatre, and at the Keith Prowse theatre agency: "Stage-door Johnny," he quips. He came to dance at the rather ripe age of 22, doing a BA at the Laban Centre.

Although he only gave up dancing six years ago, it isn't easy to imagine Bourne as a dancer. In his combats, scruffy jumper and thick-soled pumps, he seems to have little of the grace or flamboyance one might expect. One might go so far as to call him cuddly. Does he work hard to keep fit? "I'd like to be fitter than I am. Things always get in the way of it. I do belong to a gym, but I go through phases with it... I'm 45, I do OK for my age."

On leaving the Laban Centre in 1986, he set up his own company, Adventures in Motion Pictures, with a group of friends. Their first major hit was Nutcracker! in 1992, followed by Highland Fling in 1994 and the hugely successful Swan Lake a year later. In 2002, Bourne split from AMP and his management, headed by Katharine Doré. He blames the phenomenon of Swan Lake for the split. "We weren't ready for it. It was a funny mixture of desperately trying to get the show on each day and then this incredible reaction of ovations and cheers.

"We worked with Cameron Mackintosh on Broadway. He generously helped us. I think getting a taste of the way Cameron works was a good thing and a bad thing. He works on a different level from us. It got a bit grand," Bourne says. "I felt the company was the performance company, and Katharine felt the company was the office and you could have anyone in the shows... It took a wrong turn for me. I always wanted it to feel like a group of friends." Bourne and his offshoot, New Adventures, bought back the rights to Swan Lake for £10,000 last year.

His last new work, Play Without Words, performed at the National Theatre, proved his flexibility at moving between venues and styles. He claims to take the same approach for a musical as a classical ballet: "You ask yourself all the same questions." He enjoyed sharing the choreography with Stephen Mear on the triumphant West End production of Mary Poppins: "I'm not that dictatorial that I need to have the control. If I've got it, I'll deal with it, but I don't need it."

After Edward Scissorhands, he wants to "devise something new, genuinely darker and more adult in theme". He is keen to work with Nicholas Hytner at the National again, whom he praises for his "genuine recognition of dance as theatre, rather than something that's got nothing to do with theatre."

Plans are afoot for a commissioned TV piece ("a very rare thing to be asked to do"), and he can see himself directing a musical. It seems he's returning to his first love - the theatre - but for the meantime, he says: "I must be one of very few choreographers in the country, if not the world, who actually make a living from choreography. I'm proud of that." Is he a workaholic? "It does feel that way sometimes. I'm quite happy to be lazy, but there's always so much to do."

Bourne is most proud of the sea change in attitudes to dance he has played no small part in effecting. "There are guys who saw my Swan Lake as kids, and they could suddenly see themselves doing that. Whereas if they'd gone to a classical ballet and seen a man in tights, they're not going to look at that and say, 'Ooh, that's me, that's what I want to do.'

"I've got people in the Swan Lake company now who, when they were 11 or 12, saw the show, trained, auditioned and now they're in it. It's an ambition. It has introduced this kind of work to people who wouldn't normally go to it. Maybe it's given people a new love in their lives, of music and dance. I certainly get a lot of letters in that respect, saying, 'You've introduced me to a whole new world that I never thought I would like.'"

'Edward Scissorhands', 22 November to 5 February, Sadler's Wells, London (0870 737 7737; www.sadlerswells.com)