Matthew Bourne's Lord of the Flies
Matthew Bourne's choreography has brought him global acclaim – but can the teenage cast of his new show bring a classic novel to life? Anna Burnside drops in on rehearsals for Lord of the Flies
Tuesday 01 March 2011
Bruce Summers is not the kind of wee guy normally seen inside Glasgow's Film City building. A Beaux Arts anomaly in Rab C Nesbitt's old stomping ground of Govan, it is normally full of beautiful young people in avant-garde glasses.
Bruce, 13, is wearing a black sweatshirt with fluorescent lettering and has stripes shaved into the sides of his hair. He would, under normal circumstances, be hanging around outside with his pals.
Instead, Bruce is here for rehearsals. He has been hand-picked from hundreds of young lads for a Matthew Bourne production of Lord of the Flies.
He has never danced before, never seen Swan Lake, Edward Scissorhands or any of Bourne's other wildly successful shows. Yet on Wednesday night he and 14 others, aged from 11-21, will perform on Glasgow's grandest stage, that of the Theatre Royal, in the world premiere of Lord of the Flies.
"I thought dance was the thing girls do," he says. "But it's mostly acting, running about, being in groups."
Bruce is the only boy from his school taking part in Lord of the Flies, and there was some sniggering in the playground. "I did get slagged for it," he admits. "But I thought, 'There's no point listening to what they've got to say. I'm going to give it a shot'. And now I have, I want to continue it further."
This is no ordinary Bourne production, destined for a West End run and monster tour. The Theatre Royal approached his company last year to put on a full-scale show, funded by the Scottish Arts Council, with young men who had never danced before. "It's the mix of the professionals with these kids that's unique," says Bourne, who has been in Glasgow for a fortnight, directing rehearsals. "With a new show. And a new score. In a major theatre with people paying to see it; proper money."
He clears his throat and laughs nervously. "That's the big new thing about it."
He chose Lord of the Flies because it ticked so many boxes: all-male cast, themes that teenagers could easily grasp. As an adaptation of a well-known work, it has immediate audience recognition. Golding's story of a group of boys stranded on a deserted island, descending into tribalism, allowed him to blend his professional dancers with the rookies without obvious joins. "The big question mark problem of it was, how do you mix the professionals with the kids in a way that was meaningful and not token? We could do anything and bring them on to a crowd scene, or have two sections where they're really involved.
"But to me the point of the project was to involve them in a much deeper level."
So the island becomes an empty theatre, discovered by a band of youths as war rages outside. "With Lord of the Flies we could mix older and younger performers and unify them with our dancers. They have the same uniform, the same costume.
"The story lends itself to movement that is very rough edged and basic and primal; very physical; the sort of stuff the boys might identify with and enjoy doing." As it was not technique-driven, the distinction between the trained dancers and the new boys would gently blur. "There would be a mingling that would work, which was really important to us."
With so many of the company's tried and tested ingredients being supplied by the company's regular collaborators, the show should have a sprinkle of the Bourne stardust. Any number of earnest unknowns could put a bunch of lads in a show at in the community centre. But Bourne is a brand that will give the lads a taste of the big time, as well as attracting an audience that goes well beyond proud mums and dads.
Stage school graduates would give their legwarmers to be working with the crack professionals who created Car Man, Edward Scissorhands and Dorian Gray. But Bruce and the crew don't particularly notice. They don't know Bourne's track record and back catalogue. Not only have they never danced before, many of them have never seen any kind of ballet or professional dance show. A week before opening night, some have yet to set foot in the Theatre Royal.
For Bourne, this brings a whole new set of problems. "They have absolutely no reference points. It's hard to put yourself in that position – you don't know what is in the head of someone like that. Are we involved in a two-week game and suddenly there's going to be an audience here and they will be really terrified?"
Despite the pressure, Bourne has relished these two weeks away from his comfort zone. "It's nice to try something completely different and feel a bit challenged. It wakes you up a little bit.
"Usually I can rely on the people I work with to deliver, so I sit back a little bit. They give me so much, I don't have to squeeze it out of them. We've got a shorthand going and there is a complete commitment: they want to work with me, they want to be good to impress me. This is different. I find myself saying things and the boys don't have a clue what I mean, or making references that they won't get.
"I am constantly thinking, how can I explain that, what can I say to make them think that."
The rewards, however, have been enormous. Bourne is delighted that, two days into rehearsals, Bruce was asking about what comes next and what kind of training a dancer needs.
"Even someone with no training whatsoever can offer a lot if you get them to think in the right way, use their imagination in the right way. It shows you how far you can go, that it's not all about technique. You can't beat a moment delivered with honesty and truth by someone. It's a golden thing, to have real truth. I have had moments of that, I can see they're really feeling it. It's in their faces. They're not acting, they've been asked to do it and find something within themselves to call upon, and they have. And that's exciting."
Already other education authorities – in Scotland and the rest of the UK – have asked when they can do their own Lord of the Flies. Bourne sees it as something that can, and should, be rolled out to other locations.
"What kids get from this is really quite major. It could change some of their lives, I really believe it can.
These lads have done, he thinks, a very courageous thing. Despite Strictly and Street Dance 3D, a dance show is still not an easy thing for a teenager to sign up for. "Boys stereotype dance as just for girls," says 14-year-old Matthew Docherty. "I never thought I would start to prefer dance to the other things I do. I have learned that you can dance instead of speaking and completely change how you behave with your body. This has been life-changing for me."
Lord of the Flies, Theatre Royal, Glasgow (08448 717 647) 2 to 5 March
The Bourne supremacy: three landmark shows
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This imaginative contemporary interpretation of Oscar Wilde's novel is set in the image-obsessed modern fashion industry and recasts the destructively beautiful Gray as a perfume-selling It-Boy.
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Loosely based on Tchaikovsky's ballet (and partly inspired by Hitchcock's 'The Birds'), Bourne defied convention by replacing the traditional female corps de ballet with an all-male ensemble.
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