How We Met: Lez Brotherston & Matthew Bourne

'We've called each other Bette and Joan. He thinks Bette's common and I think Joan's a slut'


Matthew Bourne, 50, is a choreographer and artistic director of New Adventures. His productions include 'The Car Man', 'Dorian Gray' and his all-male 'Swan Lake', which has netted more than 30 international awards since it premiered in 1996. He lives in London and Brighton.

I first met Lez for professional reasons, in 1994 I think, for a piece called Highland Fling. It was a version of La Sylphide, which is a really old ballet and I was trying to find a way of updating it to modern-day Scotland. Lez jumped at the idea. A lot of people don't get my ideas, but Lez and I have always shared a desire to be daring. He's easily bored and he likes to be challenged.

It was interesting with Swan Lake, as I was initially wary of working with Lez on that. We'd had a great time together on Highland Fling but Lez had just designed a Swan Lake for Northern Ballet and I thought, "He won't want to do another." But he said, "I can really think about this fresh." What he did with the Swan's costume was iconic.

I consider the pieces to be as much Lez's as they are mine. He's the first person I go to with a concept, and I give him freedom to contribute to that concept.

People have said we're similar but it's one of those things you don't see yourself. Recently, we were [rehearsing] in Plymouth and I went to the front-of-house café. The woman there said something about spilling coffee in front of me earlier and I said "It wasn't me" and she said, "Oh, you and that other man, I can't tell the difference between you." I said, "But he hasn't any hair. I've got a nice full head of hair, thank you very much!"

We laugh a lot, and he'll write rude messages to me and send silly texts. If the tension is there in getting a new piece on, he knows how to break it with a joke.

Over the years, we've spent more time with each other outside of work. Boringly, we'll go to the theatre together, and film is a big interest we share, particularly old British films. And this year we went on holiday together. It was my 50th birthday and I decided to take a bunch of friends to Jamaica to stay in Noël Coward's old house. We were the two oldies so we consoled each other while surrounded by all these beautiful young dancers.

I can't imagine asking anyone else [to be my designer]. Artistically, I'm a family man, and he's central to that. I'd almost rather not do a project than not have him and that family of people around me.

Lez Brotherston, 49, is one of Britain's most renowned stage designers. With credits spanning dance, theatre and opera, he is best known for his 16-year collaboration with Matthew Bourne. He lives in east London

I don't think Matt will remember the first time we met, but it was at Opera North [in Leeds]: he was choreographing his Nutcracker and I was working on an opera there, and we met in the corridor. We just said hello, but I remember it because I had heard about him from a supervisor at Northern Ballet. She saw his [previous piece] Deadly Serious and came back and said it was fantastic. Then, a couple of years later, around 1994, he was doing this piece called Highland Fling. The designer who was going to do it pulled out and one of Matthew's associates, who'd seen a play I'd designed the night before, suggested me. We met up at the National Theatre for coffee to see whether we'd get on and we found we shared a lot of influences.

I was suddenly working with somebody from the same generation; until then, I had always worked with directors who were established who I had to be reverential towards. But with Matt, I could talk to him as an equal. It was also an odd experience, because his core company at the time was only seven dancers and I had been working at much bigger companies with large staff and departments. Suddenly I found myself doing alterations and helping to dress the show, things I hadn't done in years. It felt like going back to my roots, which was very gratifying.

Working with Matt is a dream job. Dance pieces are very different [to theatre], because ultimately there is no script, so as a designer you're absolutely involved in the decision-making process about what a project is going to be, rather than just responding to a script. Matt is great – he never comes in and says, "This is the way I want to do it, this is how it is."

I never like to take anything for granted and whenever Matt talks to me about a show, I always have to say, "And will I be doing it?" But we have such a great rapport that I obviously hope it'll be mine.

I can't remember us ever having a row. We do tease each other a lot, though. With our new show Cinderella, we've talked about the character of the stepmother, and as far as I'm concerned, she's Bette Davis, and as far as he's concerned, she's Joan Crawford. We have been known to call each other Bette and Joan. He thinks Bette's quite common and an overrated actress and I think Joan's a bit of a slut.

It's really important to share a sense of humour when you're creating something. You have to feel comfortable enough to say, "Here's an idea, it may be terrible," because out of something terrible, something great may happen.

Matthew Bourne's new production of 'Cinderella', to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Blitz, is at Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (tel: 0844 412 4300), Tuesday to 23 January, prior to a national tour

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