The really Wilde show: Matthew Bourne takes on Dorian Gray

He put male swans into 'Swan Lake' and bikers into 'The Nutcracker'. Now Matthew Bourne has a new challenge – 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'. Lynne Walker meets ballet's most daring choreographer

"I'm actually quite scared of Dorian Gray," says Matthew Bourne, whose new dance-theatre version of Oscar Wilde's masterpiece is tipped as the hot ticket at this year's Edinburgh International Festival. Surely it's not the adaptation that worries him? Bourne's ability successfully to marry dance and story-telling has worked to quirky perfection in such classics as his male Swan Lake, sweet-toothed Nutcracker! and his magical, sharp-edged Edward Scissorhands.

What is so different about adapting Wilde's illusive chimera concerning the Adonis-like young man whose portrait ages while he doesn't, allowing Dorian to retain his youthful demeanour while pursuing a life of hedonism and debauchery? "There isn't a single sympathetic character to lead you through the narrative, which makes it one of the hardest things I've ever worked on," explains Bourne. "No James [as in the 'romantic wee ballet' Highland Fling], no Cinderella – there's simply no one here you can invest in and go on a journey with. There's no big heart.

"I'm not approaching Wilde in the way that John Osborne did for the theatre in the 1970s," he continues. "I'm simply attracted by the themes in Dorian Gray that people will recognise: the obsession with staying young and the depravity and corruption beneath perfection." Wilde's exploration of the destructive nature of beauty, the reckless pursuit of pleasure, the sleazy corruption beneath the enchanting façade, Bourne suggests, resonates as much now as it did when – with its homoerotic overtones – it shocked the world in the last decade of the 19th century. Moving away from portraiture into the medium of photography, Bourne has updated the tale to the present time, in a new departure for him, setting it in today's image-obsessed world of contemporary art and politics. "Dorian Gray is the essential 'It Boy' – an icon of beauty and truth in an increasingly ugly world," he explains. "Wilde's artist Basil is now a photographer, a Damien Hirst-like figure. and Dorian is going to be an international icon, a poster boy fronting an ad campaign for the new scent, 'Immortal pour Homme'."

Dorian Gray is Bourne's first production for almost three years with his company New Adventures. It was, however, just one of several ideas he'd been mulling over. He thought of developing his love for the music of Percy Grainger, perhaps in a version of Herman Melville's novella, Billy Budd, while he also toyed with applying his mercurial imagination to Peter Pan, Blithe Spirit, The Beggar's Opera or The Water Babies. But it was Wilde's work of Gothic horror, a Faustian "black fairy tale", which finally tempted him, bringing together the creative team that produced the double Olivier award-winning hit Play Without Words, including the designer Lez Brotherston and the composer Terry Davies.

Brotherston's intriguing costume designs reveal one of the twists in the production. Perhaps to illuminate the story's gay subtext as well as the development of Dorian as a character, but also to create a more prominent female role, Bourne has switched some of the genders. The worldly Lord Henry, who corrupts his young friend Dorian, has been recreated as a woman, Lady H, "possibly," says Bourne, "a magazine editor". Whether or not this devil's advocate, danced by Micheal Meazza, wears Prada, she will be sporting some sleek couture including a little black number worn with shades, and a sharply tailored trouser suit. On the other hand, the vapid Sibyl Vane, the Shakespearean actress with whom Dorian becomes hopelessly infatuated, is transformed into a male dancer called Cyril.

"I begin by listing the characters and situations, the reasons to move or dance or go somewhere, then I write one version that reads like a story and another that contains ideas for movement, scenery, costumes. Narrative to me is as central to dance as it is to cinema or the novel," says Bourne, "and I find films inspirational as a visual lead." Movies percolate through Bourne's choreography, from the influence of Alfred Hitchcock, Walt Disney, Fred Astaire and classic British films from David Lean on his early work to The Postman Always Rings Twice in the smouldering The Car Man.

His viewing list leading up to Dorian ranged from American Psycho (Patrick Bateman sharing with Dorian the pleasure of leading a double life), Todd Haynes's Velvet Goldmine, Faye Dunaway in Eyes of Laura Mars ("an awful film," laughs Bourne), Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup with its theme of a photographer living in a world bounded by fashion, pop music, marijuana, and easy sex – and "anything concerning lost youth, or set in the worlds of politics or fashion". That includes Robert Altman's black comedy Prêt à Porter as well as documentaries on Cecil Beaton and David Bailey.

Bourne appreciates film directors whose choices you can "see". The transitions from one scene to another help the fluency of the story, he explains, "the kind of thing you can do on film but you can't do on stage" – although Bourne often does do them, and successfully, too.

Are there links between the various stories he's taken up over the years? "I try to find different subjects, for example Edward Scissorhands was aimed at a big family audience but Play Without Words delved into a darker side, was more adult, more experimental," says Bourne. He has directed straight plays but feels that his language "speaks best in story-telling without words". How the narrative of the work ends up relies on what happens in the rehearsal studio. "I push myself to make everything move, to explore places where the dancers can go, extracting movement out of emotional situations." His early reputation for wry, spry short pieces took a sudden new direction in 1992 when he and Adventures in Motion Pictures (of which he was artistic director from 1987 to 2002) launched Nutcracker! on an unsuspecting and very delighted Edinburgh International Festival audience. Little wonder that the festival, along with Sadler's Wells where Bourne and New Adventures are resident artist and company, respectively, jumped at the idea of being co-producers of Dorian Gray. Costing around £500,000 to mount, it's a small-scale venture compared to the £1.2m raised through project funding and investment for Edward Scissorhands, now proving its artistic and commercial viability on an immensely successful world tour.

But, as Robert Noble, Bourne's co-director in New Adventures, points out, they've always had to be nimble on their feet when it comes to funding. "We actually rival the big subsidised companies in terms of the number of dancers we can be employing at any one time, the amount of UK and international touring we do, and the vast audiences the shows attract," he says. The Bourne factor, along with the Billy Elliot cult, has undoubtedly kicked in when it comes to both sexes feeling able openly to appreciate and take part in ballet. That was brought home to Bourne on a recent visit to a Leicestershire college when he encountered a class of strapping young men enthusiastically studying dance.

Brotherston's depictions of such fantastical characters as Desire (a tattoo-covered, neck-chained and booted clubber), skimpily-clad Mayhem and Dorian himself (danced by Richard Winsor) in a sharp suit, give away a few clues as to the kind of show we can expect.

Another vital member of Team Bourne is the composer Terry Davies, also seeped in the ongoing development process. "I'm enjoying being in a rock-pop world," says Davies, "especially since the music that young people are listening to now is far better than the stuff I heard in the days when I went clubbing." As in most of Bourne's shows, the music will be live, and Davies has scored for a rock quintet directed from the keyboard. "I do use leitmotifs, through which characters and situations can be associated or identified," he says. "There's a lot of material needed for these shows as the music has to work as the narrative, providing the dialogue."

The score won't be finished until the preview performances in Plymouth, and even after that Davies may tinker with it. He and Bourne work together closely during rehearsal, with the choreographer sometimes suggesting a movement or dramatic situation then asking the composer to respond. "Yes, it's an unconventional way to work and it can be scary," admits Davies, "but so far we've not had a seriously bloodied nose!"

There have been countless film, literary and other artistic adaptations of Dorian Gray, of course, from the famous 1945 film, so effectively mixing black and white and colour effects, to television's The Sins of Dorian Gray. Will Self's Dorian, an Imitation is another modern take, while a musical Dorian – The Remarkable Mister Gray opened in the US earlier this summer. Bourne and his colleagues at New Adventures must be hoping, however, that what is being eagerly anticipated as a "darkly seductive" hit in Edinburgh could prove to be the most memorable of them all.

'Dorian Gray' previews at the Theatre Royal Plymouth (01752 267222), 14 to 16 August, then premieres at the Edinburgh International Festival (0131-473 2000), 22 to 30 August, before touring around the UK to 27 September (

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