Bourne again: ballet's enfant terrible bites back

Modern choreography's most colourful figure is getting his teeth into Sleeping Beauty
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The Independent Culture

He has reinvigorated ballet with eccentric takes on classic tales. And with a new production featuring ancient vampiric creatures cast into the modern world, Matthew Bourne could well enjoy yet more success with a twilight twist on Sleeping Beauty.

The 51-year-old choreographer's latest project, announced yesterday, will be Tchaikovsky's 1889 ballet, debuting in a fresh guise at London's Sadler's Wells next December.

The story will jump from the 19th century to the present day, with the narrative's dashing lead portrayed as a vampire-like being with the ability to stay alive for the duration of his loved one's 100-year sleep.

Bourne said the heroine, Aurora, would be "partly a fairy" but come under influence of a vampiric loved one, suggesting the production will be every bit as ground-breaking as his previous outings.

"You can't get away from the fact that it's a fairy story," Bourne told The Independent yesterday. "That gives you a licence to go anywhere." The choreographer said he will "give a few twists" to the story so that "audiences will not see something familiar" and said the plot, which will conclude in 2012, may well feature next year's Olympics.

The Hackney-born choreographer is arguably the biggest name in British dance. He has consistently sold out venues throughout his career – and his 1995 production of Swan Lake, with its famously all-male swans, is still the longest-running ballet in the West End's history.

"I think the most important thing about him is his ability to bring dance to audiences who wouldn't normally have been interested," said Tamara Rojo, a principal dancer with London's Royal Ballet. "He's one of the reasons dance is having a good moment in Britain right now."

In his youth, Bourne staged amateur ballets and got a taste for the West End as a keen autograph hunter. After various temporary jobs, in 1982 he was granted a place as a dancer at London's Laban Centre for Movement and Dance, partly for his "enthusiasm", and founded his dance company Adventures in Motion Pictures after graduation. Its name was partly a joke, but also referred to Bourne's cinematic style.

His peers say he has an uncanny ability to imagine scenes "through a lens". "His productions are theatrical concepts containing dance, rather than the other way around," said David Massingham, Bourne's former business partner and now co-artistic director of Birmingham's International Dance Festival. "He's always been able to approach things with a filmic attitude, with a flair for re-contextualisation." Bourne's company will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year with a series of performances at Sadler's Wells, culminating with the new production.

So is the fresh work definitely destined for success? Some recent reviews have charged Bourne with a "lack of chutzpah", and for forcing his modern insights to betray his source material. In 2008, for example, one critic panned his reinterpretation of Oscar Wilde's 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray for being unable to find an "exact analogy" to serve the text.

"He's more aware than ever of how audiences might react to his work," said Michela Meazza, who danced in Bourne's Cinderella and may be cast in the new production. "He's already looking around, he's influenced by popular culture and television. Because of the work he's built up over 20 years his audiences are ready for something contemporary. They won't expect the traditional."

Ballet reinvented: Bourne's greatest hits

Nutcracker Set in a Victorian orphanage, its dream world is populated by brightly-coloured, candy-inspired characters – including a boxing gobstopper, a humbug bouncer, and a leering knickerbocker glory.

Edward Scissorhands Taking on Tim Burton's 1990 film, early scenes mirrored Burton's Gothic gloom, before segueing into a mêlée of dancing styles – everything from cartoonish clowning to Spanish dance, and even allusions to musicals such as "Grease" and "West Side Story". One critic called it "a cracking pieceof theatre".

Dorian Gray A reinterpretation of the classic Oscar Wilde novel, the central character is portrayed as an aftershave model instead of a wealthy socialite. Bourne said its obsession with youth was relevant to a 21st-century audience.

Swan Lake Best known for its reversal of gender roles, the swans were played by a menacing ensemble of male dancers. The story is told through the eyes of a prince who escapes from a loveless relationship with his mother. The production was recently screened on television in 3D.

Cinderella Barrage balloons loom over the central character as the fairy tale is transferred to war-time London. Cinderella is taken to the ball on a motorbike in the middle of a blackout, with sirens wailing in the background and an escort of air-raid wardens pirouetting alongside her. The prince is Harry, an RAF pilot.