With the dance world at his feet

Matthew Bourne, the iconoclastic creator of a male-led Swan Lake is set to crown his reputation with his own version of Bizet's Carmen, which opens at the Old Vic.
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When the 22 year-old Matthew Bourne auditioned to join the undergraduate dance course at London's Laban Centre back in 1982, he was an unusual candidate.

When the 22 year-old Matthew Bourne auditioned to join the undergraduate dance course at London's Laban Centre back in 1982, he was an unusual candidate.

Not only was he already rather older than the average student intake in a discipline that lays inordinate store by youth, but much worse: he'd never attended a ballet class in his life.

What convinced the audition panel all those years ago was certainly not Bourne's prowess on the sprung floor ("all the feeling, none of the technique" has been his own verdict on his dancing). Nor his academic record from a rough comprehensive in Walthamstow, north-east London. What compelled them to accept this ordinary-looking, quietly spoken young man was the astounding breadth and depth of his knowledge of theatre, dance and old musicals. These were the passions that had sustained his schooldays and the interim years when he'd taken undemanding jobs in theatre agencies and the Royal National Theatre bookshop - anywhere that he could contrive to come into contact with that world.

And now, nearly 20 years on, that world is at his feet. On 13 September his latest creation for his own company, Adventures in Motion Pictures, opens at the Old Vic. The production, The Car Man, enjoyed a sell-out three-month tour of the provinces and ecstatic reviews. Later this year he returns to his old employer the RNT, but this time creating the choreography for Trevor Nunn's production of My Fair Lady. And early in 2002, he will be back at the Old Vic, taking up a unique four-year residency with a full-time ensemble of 30 actor-dancers plus creative staff, technicians and management. Bourne is contracted to produce no fewer than three major new productions, as well as three revivals - a punishing rate of output he has not attempted before. Clearly this does not worry the theatre's backers, for Bourne is now perceived as the man with the golden touch.

Would that talent have outed itself had the doors been banged shut? What is certain in Bourne's case is that over the decade and a half following graduation from the Laban Centre, he and his student chums made theatre history with Adventures in Motion Pictures. In 1997 AMP's reworking of Swan Lake became the longest-running ballet in the West End since Diaghilev's Sleeping Princess in 1926. Last year it became Britain's most talked-about export on Broadway. Back in London earlier this year more than 75,000 people saw the show over just five weeks at the Dominion Theatre.

The fact that they included thousands who wouldn't normally have dreamt of going to the theatre to see dance, let alone sit still for two and a half hours of Tchaikovsky, is the nub of AMP's appeal. Since the company's launch in 1987, it has focused on imaginative reworkings of the classics, Les Sylphides and The Nutcracker among them.

Bourne once said that the questions he constantly asks himself are: "How can I make this more palatable? How can I make this reach a bigger audience than it's reaching already?" In the early Nineties, he could have had no idea how big this audience could be. His male-dominated Swan Lake took a rarefied 19th-century Russian fairytale and turned it into an emotionally astute, seat-gripping tale of late-20th-century longing and loss. That was the one that hit the jackpot, and the show that everyone now remembers even if they didn't see it, largely because of the media reaction. What other ballet production has ever prompted a debate on the television evening news, days before it even opened?

Almost immediately it attracted the tag "The Gay Swan Lake", on the grounds that Bourne had substituted a chorus of bare-chested male "swans" for the traditional female corps de ballet, and that a relationship develops between the lead swan and the Prince. Bourne, who makes no secret of being gay himself, has always disputed this view. Indeed his Prince's story, underpinned by post-Freudian beliefs about deprivation of affection in childhood, is open to many interpretations, none of them overtly sexual.

The publicity surrounding the 1995 premiÿre certainly didn't harm the box office. But when people returned to see Swan Lake for a second and third time it was clearly for another reason. What made Bourne's take on Tchaikovsky's 100-year-old score so riveting was the way his new storyline fitted the music's emotional sinews like a second skin. It was as if these dark currents had been swimming beneath its surface all along, and Bourne had finally exposed them to the light. The gender-switched image of the swan as a muscular, dangerous force of nature suddenly seemed spot-on.

Following Swan Lake with an equal success was bound to be tricky. With Cinderella in 1997 AMP decided to build on its newly popular following, and the new dance star it had created in Adam Cooper, by opening with a splash in the West End rather than the customary tour of the provinces. Bourne set the story in London during the Blitz, making a neat added link with Prokofiev's 1940s score. He cast Adam Cooper as a dashing Air Force pilot, and Cooper's real-life girlfriend Sarah Wildor as a bespectacled blue-stocking Cinderella. It was clever. But the critics were not overwhelmed. And a celebrity-studded first night in a Piccadilly Theatre filled with sandbags and air-raid sirens failed to ensure an untroubled run, although it has since been revived with some success on a regional tour, and a revised version was much admired in Los Angeles last year.

One of Matthew Bourne's untrumpeted strengths is level-headedness. He is now a rich man, not from AMP (which lost its grant from the Arts Council and has since run on a precarious commercial basis) but thanks to his freelance work creating the dances in the 1997 revival of Oliver!, now franchised all over the world. But money has never been the issue. He remains living in Hackney, close to his parents. And since the slight check in its fortunes, AMP has reconsolidated itself as a democratic company: no major stars, and Bourne continuing to share the creative credit with his dancers. Alastair Macaulay, a dance lecturer at the Laban Centre when Bourne was there, who has followed many of his students' subsequent careers with interest, says that Bourne, despite fame and fortune, has changed the least of any of them.

Wishing to avoid the tactical errors of Cinderella, AMP launched The Car Man on the provincial circuit, well ahead of its London splash. The company's producer Katharine Dore even went so far as to write personally to every critic begging them to hold off until the Old Vic opening. This would have allowed Bourne the chance to tweak the show into shape en route, as he used to do in the days before everyone started to notice. Not one critic complied with the request. How could they ignore the most exciting and innovative dance theatre company in the world?

In any event, The Car Man got a unanimous thumbs-up. Theatres from Plymouth to Norwich were packed; audiences rose to their feet. Bourne is clearly on form with a show he describes as an "auto-erotic thriller" (he has a weakness for puns) which reworks Bizet's music for Carmen (Car Man? You've got it) but interpolates his own invented storyline inspired by 1940s films. Set in a sleazy mid-West drive-in diner, it's a desperate cliffhanger of lust, murder and revenge - part Psycho, part Double Indemnity. Again, it's the way Bourne uses dance to integrate musical and dramatic elements that makes the work so compelling.

There are scenes in The Car Man which have the visual fluency of Hitchcock or Howard Hawks: tight-focusing on a tense exchange in an upstairs window, panning out on a party scene to show grim happenings in a corner, peering inside the murderer's head to show his guilty conscience. And like the best film noir, it keeps the audience guessing right up to the final minute. Bourne's talents were never exclusively to do with dance. In The Car Man, as in Swan Lake, he fully seizes the controls of the theatrical experience.

As sources of inspiration, Bourne has always cited the two Freds, Ashton and Astaire. From Astaire he learnt how to whip up excitement during a solo by bouncing off chairs and tables. From Ashton, it was perhaps how to visualise a strong dance motif from a single strand of music. But there have been other inspirations. Peter Shaffer's 1970s play Equus, in which actors assumed the attributes of horses, gave him the key idea for Swan Lake. In The Car Man, the group choruses of garage mechanics and pony-tailed girls borrow movements from manual labour and 1950s social dance trends. The humour in all his work is what many find most surprising and refreshing. But wit and debunking are never allowed to detract from darker themes.

Why dance? Why did Bourne's directorial talent find its way in dance and not film or straight theatre? Perhaps for the same reason that the Old Vic has momentously decided to take a sideways step from showing plays. The zeitgeist is right for music and dance. Suddenly, the West End is alive with it: Fosse, Chicago, Lion King, visiting dance shows at the Peacock and Sadler's Wells, ballet at the Opera House all year round. As Ann Reinking, the Broadway star who staged Fosse in London, pointed out: "These things are cyclical. At the moment it's dance, dance, dance".

Indeed. When AMP moves in, the Old Vic will have come full circle as a dance house. In 1931, through a collaboration between Lilian Baylis and Ninette de Valois, it was the birthplace of British ballet. Soon, thanks to Matthew Bourne, it will be nurturing new British dance once again.