The Phenomenon of Matthew Bourne, Choreographer
Matthew Bourne is definitely a phenomenon. He and his company New Adventures have achieved a huge popularity among ballet and dance audiences. Take the Alhambra Bradford, a venue regularly used by touring groups. For most of their performances it has, in my experience, been half empty. At yesterday’s matinee of Bourne’s Cinderella, it was, in contrast, chokingly full. So, what explains this remarkable success?
The first thing to say is that there is absolutely no dumbing down to court popularity. This is theatrical art of the highest quality and while familiar works and stories form the basis of the repertory they are innovatively interpreted and presented with a freshness and panache that is attractive to even the most hardened traditionalist. A key feature is the translation of fairy tales to settings which have a powerful resonance for audiences because they have a familiarity and associations absent from depictions of legend and never-never land: The Nutcracker in a grim Victorian orphanage; The Sleeping Beauty in an elegant and sophisticated Edwardian society; and Cinderella in the heroic and dangerous, but also – for some – romantic, London blitz. The clever characterisations, often caricatural and comic, reinforce the authenticity of the settings, as do the large-scale extravagant decors and costumes designed by Lez Brotherston.
These characterisations feed into, and are a part of, the movements on stage. I am no expert on choreography but I have been struck with how Bourne’s approach draws on classical ballet without being unduly deferential towards it and how it has a contemporary feel without any of the jerkiness and contortions which one finds in much modern dance. Body language is there but it is part of the bigger picture and not exploited for its own sake.
At the end, it is that bigger picture, comprehensive communicative theatre with movement, music and visual splendour which makes Bourne and his collaborators the phenomenon which they are.