On his Instagram account, Sir Matthew Bourne’s biography is as succinct as it is impressive: “Director. Choreographer. Knight.” Not many in the Western dance world rise to the dizzying heights of knighthood or damehood, but for Bourne, it is just one glittering gem in his crown of accolades and awards spanning both sides of the Atlantic.

Once labelled the “world’s most popular living dance maker” by Time Magazine, the nine-time Olivier Award winner has been a defining force in the British arts scene for over three decades. His production company, New Adventures, is something of a cultural exporter, with multiple casts touring different shows at any one time across the UK, Europe and the US. Australian audiences too have enjoyed a taste of Bourne’s highly theatrical works over the years, in both theatres and cinemas.

Matthew Bourne Swan Lake

Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, Theatre Royal, Plymouth, 2018. Photo © Johan Persson

For this author, the first exposure was the final scene in the 2000 film Billy Elliot, where a grown-up Billy debuts in the role of The Swan in Bourne’s landmark version Swan Lake, which featured male swans. The image of a bare-chested male dancer in white paint and feathered pants, leaping in slow motion across the screen, is a pivotal moment for dance on film, forever tying Bourne’s stage work to the runaway success of Billy Elliot and the generation of boys who decided to take up dance in its wake.

Bourne’s radical interpretation of the classic ballet Swan Lake is undoubtedly his most iconic, still playing in theatres around the world more than 25 years after its premiere. Lazily dubbed “the gay Swan Lake” upon its Sadler’s Wells arrival in the mid-nineties, critics soon rushed to praise the convention-shattering decision to use a corps de ballet of menacing male swans and tell a more complex tale of entrapment between the prince and his animal counterpart.

Writing for The Independent about the show’s return season less than a year after its debut, dance critic Jenny Gilbert declared that the choreography revealed a new depth to Tchaikovsky’s score, covering territory unchartered by Marius Petipa’s original. She continued: “Bourne’s meticulous attention to dramatic nuance allows him to give his love-story-cum-thriller all the psychological complexity a modern audience craves but rarely gets from a narrative ballet.”

Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella, Sadler’s Wells, 2019. Photo © Johan Persson

Bold reinterpretations of classic stories are the defining feature of the British choreographer’s repertoire. With experience canvassing both major musical revivals on London’s West End and the contemporary dance canon, Bourne’s work has a notably cinematic style, taking audiences on richly textured theatrical journeys that weave drama with dance.

Whether it’s staging The Nutcracker in a Dickensian orphanage or La Sylphide in a Glaswegian housing project, Bourne has long been interested in finding creative ways to take famous tales to new audiences. This is true in substance and form, with his company New Adventures also leading the way in creating stage works for screen – something that marries perfectly with Bourne’s large-scale, visionary approach to choreography.

Australian audiences will soon get to experience these films firsthand, with the Sydney Opera House launching a digital season featuring five of Bourne’s most popular works on its video streaming platform, Stream, throughout November.

“I am delighted that Sydney Opera House will be bringing five New Adventures titles to our Australian audience through their digital platform this November,” said Bourne. “Not only does it enable audiences familiar with our shows to revisit some of their favourites, but it also excitingly allows completely new audiences to encounter our productions, whilst international touring and travel is presented with ongoing challenges.”

Opening the season is a refreshed version of the legendary Swan Lake, recently filmed on the Sadler’s Wells stage. Reflecting on the longevity of the show after more than two decades of regular international touring, Bourne told GCN Magazine in 2019 that, despite early controversies about the male cast, it remains “a piece about acceptance and being able to love the person you want to love”. He immediately clarified: “Actually it’s a little more basic than that – it’s about a lost soul who just needs to be hugged. Everyone gets that and identifies with that!”

Matthew Bourne’s Romeo + Juliet, Three Mills, London, 2019. Photo © Johan Persson

Accompanying Swan Lake are four other digitally streamed classics retold in Bourne’s unique choreographic voice. Classical music fans will discover two of Sergei Prokofiev’s most famous scores for dance, arranged in ways that honour the original but offer a contemporary edge.

In Romeo + Juliet, the young star-crossed lovers find themselves in a dystopian future at the Verona Institute, where warring families are replaced with totalitarian overlords. Noting the many attempts at the Bard’s classic across all genres, not just dance, The Guardian recently lauded Bourne’s inventiveness, originality and “thrilling rethinking of this tale of woe”.

Prokofiev’s music continues in a dramatic retelling of Cinderella that adopts a war-torn London as its backdrop. A danger-tinged love story between the leading woman and a young air force pilot plays out amidst the horrors of the Blitz and World War II.

Another reworking of a fairy tale is The Red Shoes – a stage adaptation of Michael Powell’s 1948 film of the same name, which itself is based on a Hans Christian Andersen text. Set in a touring ballet company, one woman’s dream to become the greatest dancer in the world is pushed off-course by an all-consuming love affair with a young musician. Bourne’s staging seeks to capture some of the surreal, larger-than-life drama of the film, but swaps the original score for music by Hollywood composer Bernard Herrmann.

Yet another ballet turned on its head is The Car Man, cheekily named after Bizet’s opera Carmen. The 19th-century Spanish cigarette factory is replaced with a garage-diner in 1960s Middle America. Purists be warned: the plot and score have undergone a radical transformation, but there is still plenty of story to chew on in this steamy, high-octane drama.

Matthew Bourne The Car Man

Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man, Churchill Theatre, Bromley, 2015. Photo © Johan Persson

Bourne’s dramatic reinterpretations of these much-loved stories may stray far from the originals, but the director-choreographer sees this as a way to speak to new audiences. As for the traditionalists, he’s careful to keep them in mind too – once describing this task as “walking a tightrope between being innovative and true to the piece”.

Speaking with PBS in 2014, Bourne said: “[For] the classical ballets that I’ve reinterpreted, I’m very conscious of the original when I make those pieces. Although I’m known, I suppose, for reinventing them in my own way, I’m very reverential in other ways about them. I’m very… conscious of where they’ve come from. I want to please the people who know them really well, as well as invite this new audience in.”

The audience experience is at the heart of Bourne’s creative vision. Great stories retold as contemporary dance-theatre, with all the bells and whistles of a big production company, has won New Adventures a huge international following. With five of the company’s biggest works now on show, Australian audiences can also dive deep into the world of Matthew Bourne at a time when international touring remains on pause.

Matthew Bourne The Red Shoes

Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes, Theatre Royal, Plymouth, 2016. Photo ©Johan Persson

And for those worried about the “flatness” of dance on film, take comfort in Bourne’s inherently cinematic approach to choreography and pioneering work in broadcasting stage works (indeed, his Swan Lake was the first ballet shot in 3D). But it’s Bourne’s skilful storytelling that resonates most with audiences.

“The task I set myself is I imagine a person sitting there who knows nothing, and the curtain goes up, and I have to start telling them a story. Whether they know this piece really well and they enjoy all the differences that I’m doing with it, or they’ve never seen it before [or maybe] they’ve never seen a dance piece, I try and make it on that level as well…it’s very clear storytelling.”

The Matthew Bourne Dance Season has launched on Stream, the Sydney Opera House’s streaming platform, with films released throughout November – Swan Lake (2 November), Romeo + Juliet (9 November), The Red Shoes (16 November), The Car Man (23 November) and Cinderella (30 November). You can watch all five films now if you choose to purchase the $35 bundle, or you can rent the individual films for $10 as they are released. Each film rental will have a 30-day rental period.


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