Five minutes with Swan Lake choreographer Matthew Bourne

It’s been five years since Matthew Bourne’s infamous Swan Lake last hit the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, and 24 years since its debut in 1995. The choreographer tells us what to expect with this new production, and what’s on his arts hit list.


Choreographer Matthew Bourne



What about this production of Swan Lake will surprise audiences?
It depends on whether or not they’ve seen it before; if they’ve not seen it, then there’s a lot to surprise them. Especially if you’ve seen a traditional Swan Lake, you’d be surprised to see male swans instead of female swans. You might also be surprised that there are actually women in the cast because it’s constantly referred to as the all-male Swan Lake. I think the thing that people might not expect is how moved they might be by it. I hear it quite a lot – audience members come up to me after the show and say, “You made me cry.” And they say it to me as if it was a truly unexpected thing. It does touch you in a genuine way and becomes personal somehow – there’s some sort of alchemy that happens in this show, in the last act, that even I can’t quite explain. The last act is almost beyond explanation, what actually happens on stage – if I tell you, it sounds awful, but the music and what happens and the feeling, it becomes personal, and people get emotional. There’s never been a show where this doesn’t happen.

For audiences who might have experienced your Swan Lake before – is there something new in this production that will make the experience unique?
It’s a very different and brand new production, which is newly thought through. It’s the same production in a sense, but the design has been carefully adapted and changed with a use of new technology, like in the projections. There’s a brand new lighting design, which has given it a much more intimate, psychologically darker feel. New costumes, new choreography… It is quite different, in the detail. These projections, they’re quite subtle and there aren’t many of them, but I think they’re effective. We used to have a swan on the front cloth as an image, but now it comes to life and flies, so you get a series of flying swans at the beginning. It’s very poetic and beautiful. And there’s another little surprise that happens in the first half with a swan as well, which I won’t give away! So there are some nice little moments that are new, but I think for me, I would say that Paule Constable, the lighting designer, has reinvented it the most, partly because she’s never seen it. She’s an associate artist in my company, but she’d never seen Swan Lake, either on film or live, which made me think, “Ok, why not?” That turned out to be a good thing. Lez Brotherston (the designer) and myself had to hold ourselves back and let Paule have her view on it.

What’s different about you as a choreographer since you first brought Swan Lake to audiences 24 years ago?
There was a lot of silly humour in it at one point. Over the years, I pared that down a bit, but even more so now, and I wanted to really tell the story of the prince and focus in on him a little bit more. There’s still some humour in it; hopefully, the good bits that still work – audiences really need that and love it as well. Those bits are important, but there were too many childish, silly things, and that’s gone in me a bit. I want to be taken more seriously, I suppose. I want to move people more. When I discovered I could move people with this piece, it surprised me that you could do that, and I think I want to do that even more now.

What were the challenges you faced in 1995, and by comparison, what are the challenges you face today?
Back then, it was about just being taken seriously at all, I suppose, with all the dance critics and stuff. I was always a bit, what they would call, commercial or commercially minded. I would see it as audience-friendly. I’ve always thought of audiences. So the challenge was to create something that would be taken seriously, but also would be popular. That sort of has changed over the years in the sense that they get me more now and have come to accept who I am and what I do, and audiences have come with me. That’s what I’m most proud of – the increasing size of the audience for this company is incredible. The challenge now is to keep pleasing people. And thinking, have I done all my ideas now – those are the feelings as you’ve done more work. A lot of the things I’ve wanted to do, I’ve done. So you’ve got to be really certain you have something to say or a good story to tell… they’re the concerns now, really – not to let the audience down. They trust me now; I feel a great weight of trust. They’ll book whatever I put out now, which is great, but it makes me nervous.

Where do you find the most inspiration, culturally speaking?
Theatre – I love plays, more than going to dance these days. If I’m really honest with myself, most dance I don’t enjoy that much because it’s my world, and I like to see something that someone else is doing. I’ve always been a big movie fan, since I was a kid. Those things still resonate with me a lot. It’s all a bit different now, the way you watch movies – it’s more about TV now, but movies are a big influence. I wish I read more – social media seems to have taken over my life a little bit too much and I feel really worried about that. I genuinely want to read more, and I think, when am I going to do that? I keep thinking I’ll retire one day and read all these books. Travel is the other thing that’s inspiring; going to new places, which I do quite a lot. I’ve often found that’s led to a new piece or influenced a piece in some way. It opens the mind.

What’s next for you after this production wraps?
I’m off to Los Angeles next for five weeks for Cinderella. And I’ll be doing a little rehearsing with some of the company for Romeo + Juliet. I love being in LA, meeting celebrities and old movie stars. I find them and invite old film stars along that my company have never heard of!



What I’m currently…

Reading I bought the new Oscar Wilde biography that I had read a lot about. I read the Richard Ellmann one that was written years ago, and that had a big effect on me at the time. I haven’t opened the new one yet, but I look forward to reading it.

Seeing The thing I’ve loved a lot is the Pinter at the Pinter season – these one-act short plays at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London. There have been seven programmes of them. Pinter is a world I am very happy in. It is odd – I’ve questioned it sometimes – because my whole thing with storytelling in a non-verbal world has been clarity – trying to get these audiences to understand a story without words; whereas Pinter, of course, is almost the opposite – it’s all question marks all over the place. What’s really going on? I love it. Five minutes into every play, and I’m completely in the world that I enjoy. I also saw and loved Summer and Smoke, the Tennessee Williams play, with an amazing central performance by Patsy Ferran.

Watching I’ve just seen The Favourite, which I loved. I thought it was really original, a really daringly different way of telling a story. It’s lovely to see a film like that being recognised in the way it has been. Slightly shocking, which is good. I just applaud its uniqueness. That’s what delights me now. I think so much cinema is made by committee and I want to see someone’s vision, and those are the films that people tend to love, actually. I’m looking forward to Tim Burton’s Dumbo (out March 29) – Tim Burton is a great visionary director who’s obviously going to have control over everything, and that’s where you get a good movie these days, I think.

If time and money were no object… There are some places I’d like to go to that I haven’t yet been to – Havana, Cuba and Mexico, Ludwig of Bavaria’s castles around Germany – I’ve always dreamed of doing that, so I will do those things I’m sure. I like a little adventure, and I don’t need it to cost a lot of money, it’s the time available to do it. The thing I experienced last year that I can recommend is a visit to the Isles of Scilly off the Cornish coast. Absolutely wonderful, like a magical world – it’s not like being in the UK; you feel like you’re in this magical place with all these little islands and seals everywhere, and wildlife, and nobody there – in July, my partner and I and our dog had a whole beautiful bay to ourselves for the whole afternoon, with beautiful weather.


Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake runs at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre February 26 to March 2,


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