Beauty and the Vampire

By Huang Tingting Source:Global Times Published: 2016/7/12 18:23:00

Sir Matthew Bourne talks about turning ballet on its head

Sir Matthew Bourne (second from left) attends a Q&A session in Beijing on July 1. Photo: Courtesy of Zhao Pingping

Renowned British choreographer Sir Matthew Bourne is ready to rock audiences in China by bringing his 2012 gothic romance Sleeping Beauty to the Beijing Tianqiao Performing Arts Center from September 1-4.

Ballet fans may know Bourne from his sensational 1995 gay Swan Lake featuring male swans falling in love with each other. 

But gender switch is just among the many twists Bourne has been responsible for over the years. The talented choreographer has managed to turn numerous pretty ballet classics into dark yet fascinating adaptations loved by millions across the world, ranging from the well-known Nutcracker! to the adaptation of Tim Burton's 1990 film Edward Scissorhands.

As the final piece of his re-imagined Tchaikovsky trio, Sleeping Beauty is, as Bourne puts it, a "work of pride." This time, Bourne turns the tale of love on its head by turning the innocent princess Aurora into a wild and regal young woman involved in a supernatural romance with a vampire.

According to the show's organizers, after Beijing the show will head to Japan, after which it will not be performed for the public again for at least another five years. 

On July 1, this five-time Olivier  Award and two-time Tony Award winner sat down for an interview at the Beijing Tianqiao Performing Arts Center to discuss his 29-year-long career.

Q: You are known as an unconventional choreographer who adapts classic works into dark stories. Why did you choose this edgy style?
Matthew Bourne: I think ballet, classical ballet, was responsible for making us feel that these fairy tales are very sweet and beautiful or sad. You know, actually the stories themselves are very dark. They started off dark. [But] they became quite sweet in the ballets. So for me, it's about making them what they really are and using references that are not just coming from the ballet world. So, the original version of Sleeping Beauty, for example, is very… dark, very explicit sexually, very violent and featured things we didn't put in [our version]. We've not gone anywhere nearly as far as the original story. 

I think all I do when I approach a famous piece like this is to do a lot of research around it, audio productions, the film versions, Disney, and also written versions, rewritten versions, and try to find my own version within them.

And my stories are not always dark. That's why it's subtagged as gothic romance. I want to make sure people notice it is still a love story, is still romantic and beautiful. It's a beautiful love story with dark elements around it. And it's important to say that, you know. Because when anyone says it is "dark," it's all gonna be "scary." It's not really that. It's…um… gothic romance, yeah.

Q: Does that mean that storytelling and setting are as equally important as the dance movements in your works?

Matthew Bourne: Yes, yes. Story comes first. Then we create the movement. So we do a lot of research about the background. The story or the structure has to be strong. And then we are able to create the movement to go with it. The movement is terribly important, of course, but we wouldn't create the movement then put the story on top of it. It has to come the other way around. So the first thing I do is write the story, like I was writing a short story or a novel or something. And once the story is there, it can become a film, a TV program. It just happens to become a dance.

Q: I also noticed a lot of Broadway musical and theater elements in your works.

Matthew Bourne: Yeah, that's what I grew up loving. That's the only dance that I knew for many years. So that's my influence still; one of my favorite choreographies comes from that period.

Q: You have done a lot of interesting and intriguing adaptations, such as Swan Lake with male swans. Do you deliberately bring in elements such as gender switching and homosexuality to make your works more appealing to audiences, or to make ballet more relevant to society?

Matthew Bourne: I think I… like playing around with gender… if it's relevant. It feels like a good idea. I don't always do that, you know. Like Cinderella, Cinderella is a woman, and I didn't change any sex in there or anyone. Sometimes it really works. It's quite interesting, you know. I've done the other way around, like I turn a male character into a female character and I did it great. And for me, all sex respect reflects society as much as possible. And in a dance company, you know, you have some gay dancers, usually. Let's face it. That's true. And you know, you'll reflect the lives of people that you're working with as well. And so I try make the shows as well that have something reflected in there.

I am very, very audience-conscious, so I kind of want…everything. I want too much. I want older people to enjoy it; I want younger people to enjoy it; I want people to bring their children and still be able to watch it. I want the gay people in the audience to have relationships that represent them, you know. I want teenagers to get in. I kind of want… to appeal to a lot of people. I want a sexy man on the stage, a sexy woman on the stage. Both sexes have something to watch and enjoy.

Maybe I'm trying to please too many people. But I am still conscious of it. It's about trying to represent the world as it is. Same choices are with the dancers, actually. They are not always the same. I try as much as possible to get a group of dancers to look different, so it represents the world a little bit more.

Q: I can tell that you have wide interests when it comes to selecting works to make an adaptation, from Edward Scissorhands to Red Shoes. Do you see potential in any Chinese stories that could serve as an inspiration for your next work?

Matthew Bourne: Well, potentially, yes. Because I think, from the little of what I know, the stories are quite poetic, like some folklores and tales... There are some stories that can be very physical. It's something worth exploring, yes.

I'm sure choreographers here use traditional stories and tales and then turn them into great pieces. I think that's the kind of story I look for actually. Simple stories that you can then elaborate on, or bring to different periods. Take an ancient myth and then do it in present day or something. It's all very interesting.

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