Choreographer Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man is currently setting pulses racing at London’s Sadler’s Wells theatre.
The revival of his sultry, sexy reworking of Bizet’s Carmen is a tangled web of sex, desire and murder, and will be touring the UK throughout the autumn.
PinkNews.co.uk’s Tony Grew caught up with him to discuss his use of gay characters, the suggestive power of dance and what’s next for the man who brought us an all-male Swan Lake.
Matthew Bourne doesn’t read his critics.
In the stuffy and inward-looking world of dance criticism, there is an unmistakable snobbery towards him, probably because he is popular.
His work is accessible, funny, sexy and, in his own word, raunchy.
The fact that he has choreographed West End shows like Mary Poppins does not impress the dance elite either.
“I could almost tell you the average Matthew Borne review,” he says.
“Its usually, ‘great story-telling, great drama, uniform good performances from everyone,’ then there’s always a paragraph at the end that says, ‘the choreography is not of the highest standard, or there’s a weakness here.’
“It’s purely something that dance critics think about, they’re such a small group of people, in the sense that theatre critics see a wide variety of work, every night of the week – they’re much more open to all sorts of things.
“In the dance world, you do something with actual blood in it, or people really kissing, people are shocked in a way that they never would be at a movie, or watching The Bill or Eastenders.
“We’re so behind in the way that we view things. And if you think about these people, night after night, they watch straightforward dance and ballet, which is very entertaining, of course, but the audience for that is very limited, compared to what we play to. Their minds are in some other place. “
Away from the chattering London dance elite, the 47-year-old is feted as one of the most talented choreographers alive today.
His all-male Swan Lake continues to be performed all around the world, ten years after its debut.
The Car Man played to packed houses all across Britain, and the very mention that he might be working on a new dance called, tentatively, Romeo Romeo, generated a wave of excitement in the press earlier this year.
More of that later.
We met to discuss The Car Man, one of the most intensely sexual pieces of dance seen at Sadler’s Wells.
Set in an American town called Harmony, in what appears to be the 1960s, the characters are distinctly frisky.
It begins with a playful dance and banter between mechanics, the staff of the diner opposite the garage and the garage owner.
The first thing you notice, after recovering from the cheeky, joyous shower scene involving the male dancers stripping down and soaping up, is that in among the heterosexual pairs making love without taking their clothes off are a gay couple, Marco and Vito.
They are clearly together, lovers among the straights. Bourne is happy to admit they are there by design.
“Some people say you would never had got a couple that open in 1960, in that sort of place. I just thought, ‘I don’t care,’ I just wanted to have it in there.
“They’re fairly low key in the way they behave with each other when they’re at work, in the set-up, it’s sort of suggested that they’re together.”
It is more than suggested during a scene where the characters start to move towards each other in the heat of the night, writhing and dancing in a way that makes it clear, even to Sadler’s Wells virgins, what the choreographer had in mind.
“The actual sex sequence is almost a heightened reality, I feel. Lana and Luca begin it, they go up to their room and the rest take over. You’re almost seeing a condensed version of what they’re doing up in the bedroom, it’s almost symbolic.
“I’m not asking people to believe that they’re all out having this orgy, in the front of the diner, really.
“I just felt it was something we could put in there.”
The night I watched The Car Man, the theatre was packed with teenagers on school outings, and the noise levels were certainly unusual for the normally sedate world of dance.
There were audible gasps, wild applause and cheering, stamping of feet and rushes of excited conversation.
Bourne clearly loves creating dance that engages his audience.
“I’ve got this little theory about shows and structures,” he explains.
“It sounds very cold in the way I plan an evening. As a director, you plan your story – both halves begin with lots of dancing, then some drama, and you end up with not much dancing the end of each act, because it all becomes very real and dramatic.
“I love intervals, it’s good to get to a point when everyone’s like, ‘Oh, what’s going to happen next?’
“Then you’ve got to come in and get people relaxed again, so there’s always some humour early on, after an interval.”
On the night I saw the show the contrast between the Sadler’s Wells regulars, dance lovers in their fifties, their muted reaction, and the cacophony of noise than only teenagers can generate, was amusing to observe.
“The reason those (gay) guys are there is to show that it’s not a shocking thing.
“Here in London, we’re always so sophisticated. But on tour, you sometimes have a half riot going on when they kiss. You get some gay people clapping, then you get young kids going ‘ohhhhh.’
“If you get a whole audience of schools, it’s an uproar that takes five minutes to die down.
“At Sadler’s Wells, you get audiences like you don’t get anywhere else in London, at West End theatres – it’s such a mix.
“You don’t get that mix of audiences anywhere else – I love that. When we tour, it’s a very different set-up.
“You do mid-week matinees, you get a sea of grey hair, but they love it. They’re as open to it as anyone else, they love the raunch.
“I don’t ask for a particular reaction, we quite enjoy it when there’s something going on in the audience.”
The ‘orgy’ scene is incredibly powerful, but, I wonder, is choreographing good sex as difficult as, say, writing an authentic sex scene?
“Dancers are very happy about the physicality of being very close to each other, so you already accept that as something dancers do anyway – they’re always actually touching.
“Someone was saying the other day that it’s the fluidity of the way they move together that actually makes it feel sexy – they’re not actually constantly humping, which can be a bit tiresome after a while!
“There’s a sort of artistic edge in the way they’re moving, they’re sort of suggesting things to you, but not actually completely miming them out.”
It certainly has the desired effect, and the sexual boundaries are blurred further when characters we assume to be heterosexual surprise us with their choices.
“It does create a stir, it’s starting the young people talking, discussing something. What they’re actually reacting to is not the two men kissing.
“It purposely sets itself up in that way – as a story, you think you know. It’s the first thing that happens that actually surprises people.
“It’s the fact that they’ve got to know these characters, and they think he is what they think he is, he’s set up very conventionally, the clichéd macho man, who’s quite cheeky – ‘Oh yeah, he’s going to have that affair with the sexy wife of the older man’, all pretty obvious.”
Bourne certainly likes to make the audience smile: the rocking motion of a car clearly being used for sex set the teenagers off into gales of knowing laughter.
“It’s the juxtaposition of humour and something that to some people, is still quite shocking. What you’ve just seen them doing, people are quite amused by: ‘naughty.’ Then it’s a guy getting out.
“But it’s never been a problem that’s stopped people liking the show from that point on.”
Despite the deserved public admiration of his work (he also adapted the Tim Burton film Edward Scissorhands to great acclaim) he admits to nerves on press night.
“I don’t read reviews, but the day that they come out, I feel really uneasy. I hate that it can still make me feel that way.
“It’s so public, it’s not like your friend telling you: ‘You didn’t do so well,’ you can sort of talk it through. It’s because you can’t respond, you feel like everyone on the street is looking at you like they just read it.
“And it might be good, you don’t know, but if you believe the good, you have to believe the bad, so I end up not reading anything.”
Bourne is nearly always referred to as a ‘gay’ choreographer. As we move forward in the 21st century, many professional people get slightly tired of being the ‘gay’ one – though perhaps choreography is a field in which gay men dominate.
Bourne says he doesn’t tire of the ‘gay’ tag.
“I’ve been called lots of things! I’m happy to be seen that way.
“It sometimes doesn’t come up, sometimes it will be like, ‘why do you feel you have to put gay characters into everything that you do?’
“It’s part of my life, I want to put it in there – it keeps my interest, it’s part of who I am, so want to – even in a story where it’s not central to the plot.
“There are usually some sort of sideline characters going on. There’s the female mechanic in this, as well, for our lesbian friends!”
Bourne came to dance and choreography late, auditioning at the Laban centre at the age of 22. He explains that his background, and the fact he was not, Billy Elliott style, at the Royal Ballet school at the age of seven, all informs his style.
“I started really late, working-class, East End background, parents loved movies and theatre, but didn’t really know much about dance, so I loved all that stuff, when I was growing up – I was always putting on shows, but they were all amateur.
“I started this company as soon as I left college, 20 years ago. So my background is a bit odd, it’s not coming though a company, it’s not coming through the Royal Ballet – everyone assumes you’ve been there for some reason.
“I think it’s been my biggest good fortune, to come into it late, because a lot of my influences are outside of dance – I have a lot of dance influences as well, but also movies and TV, the things I loved when I was growing up.
“I lived a bit as well, I was a big clubber, and I was a founder-member of Heaven, when I was 18, and I went to New York. I went to Studio 54, and I saw quite a lot of shows.
“All those sort of things kind of feed what I do now, they help me connect with people.”
The Car Man is inspired by Bizet’s opera, but is not in any way a remake. Bourne says he finds the music first, in this case Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite.
“It is strings and percussion, not like in the opera, it’s much more raw and contemporary sounding, and exciting – and dramatic. It suggested a whole new way of moving and telling a story.
“I wasn’t particularly interested in the story of Carmen, the opera, I didn’t even know it that well, and I still don’t know it that well, to be honest.
“I know there are parallels, but it was more the feeling of the music and the feeling of what we all know Carmen to be.
“Before that, the bigger pieces I’d done had been well-known scores, in existing order, they’d been complete pieces, and it was about rethinking a story that was already there.
“This was about the chance to create a story with the feeling of something, then scoring it like a film. It’s a different process.”
Richard Winsor as Angelo and Michela Meazza as Lana. Photo: Bill Cooper
In a company of outstanding dancers, Richard Winsor’s performance as Angelo stands out – perhaps because the character moves from shy figure of fun to demonic and dangerous desperation.
“I’ve been the champion of the outsider in lots of pieces I’ve done, it’s always the story I look for, and I see Angelo more as that character,” Bourne explains.
“Richard Winsor and another dancer, Sam, both play Angelo, they both played Edward Scissorhands as well.
“They’re both 25, and this is their fifth show with me. Richard is a very emotional performer, he likes going for the emotion. He’s going to be involved with this Romeo workshop we have.”
Aaah yes. Romeo. In March, Bourne casually mentioned to a journalist that he was thinking about maybe, perhaps, doing something around the story of Romeo and Juliet, but as a gay love story.
The press lapped it up and it was reported everywhere. Unfortunately, things are much less advanced than that.
“It’s an idea for a workshop in August, just one week, and I’m going to come up with three duets for six guys, see if I can do something that feels good, and comfortable, and real, that’s just to do with passion, sex, love and not anything else – not like in Swan Lake.
“I’ve done male duets quite a lot, but I’ve never done one that’s just purely about two people being in love, and passionate about each other.
“It may end up being a Romeo Juliet story, I may got for the Romeo Romeo idea.
“I’d just like to do something positive, although Romeo Juliet is tragedy – it ends with them both dead. I mean positive in the sense of a real love affair, a real passionate love, between two young men, I think would be a really lovely thing to do.
“It’s the world around them – you need to make sure that that’s going to make sense, it’s got to have some tension in it.
“I’m always looking, reading novels, all sorts of things, I’d like to do some dance films, and I would like to do some films with the company. I think this Romeo thing might end up being a film.”
It was a cheeky question, but I had to ask it. How do dance companies make money?
For Bourne, with a hit, Swan Lake, still being performed across the world a decade after its debut, this may not be so much of a problem, and he readily admits that his gift for popular dance does help.
“Part of what we need to do is sell tickets, we need to make a certain amount of money, which is what we need to be able to run the length of time that we do.
“We’re not a national company with the funding and infrastructure that allows companies to not need to make the money and sell the tickets.
“We still need help from Arts Council for touring around the country, to guarantee that we’re all going to be okay.
“The Arts Council has started to put some money into our production now, even revivals, which is a new thing.
“They’ve done a lot of research, which found that revivals, when you bring them back, make more money than they did the first time, so they’re happy to support something that’s going to have a life now.
“Before, it was all about new work. Again, I think dance writers, the dance world, don’t understand this slightly commercial way we have to go, they don’t get it.
“We’ve even had people write ‘they were selling t-shirts and mugs in the foyer’ like it’s offensive – as if it’s selling out or something! Every show does it in the West End.”
The Car Man is a piece that most gay men will find exhilarating, sexy, dramatic and moving.
The unbelievably attractive, and mostly semi-naked dancers, also help to hold one’s attention.
But for the gay community, representation is not just about gay men – what about the sisters?
“I have had a couple of very obvious ones!” he says, in his defence.
“In Swan Lake, I had June Buckridge (the sadistic, hard-drinking, lesbian from the 1968 film The Killing of Sister George) in the bar.
“I have toyed with the idea of Sister George as a piece, from time to time, that’s just because I love it, not just because it’s the only thing that’s out there.”
Bourne explains that the way in which a dance is physically put together means that the experiences of the company end up on stage.
“I think one of the reasons that there are a lot of gay, male aspects to the shows is that it reflects the lives of a fair amount of people in the company, but not the women.
“We haven’t had any gay, female dancers. So it’s not something that comes up in the creative process, because I open it up to ideas from people.
“In the original creation of the show, the dancers have much more input, because you’re working with them, you’re asking them for lots of ideas.
“They can all tell you their character’s life story, and the back history of their characters – actors working on a play would be like that.
“They know so much about their characters, that by the time you come to make the movement, it feeds into that.
“They know who they’re friends with, and who their ex-lovers are – there’s all that social stuff that can help.
“The actual movement, you work on together. A lot of choreographers work that way, when they get more confident.
“When I started, I used to work it all out in front of the mirror, then teach it to people. I felt that’s what you did.
“But of course, I’m 47 now, so I’m not going to be able to do what they can do, and they’re much better that I ever was. I’d be very stupid to limit it to what I could do.”
The Car Man is at Sadler’s Wells until 5th August 2007 and then tours the country. Tour dates below.
Tue 4 September – Sat 8 September 2007
Tue 11 – Sat 15 September 2007
Tue 18 – Sat 22 September 2007
Tue 25 – Sat 29 September 2007
New Wimbledon Theatre
Tue 2 – Sat 6 Oct 2007
Tue 9 – 13 October 2007
Tue 16 – Sat 20 October 2007
New Victoria Theatre
Tue 23 – Sat 27 October 2007
His Majesty’s Theatre
Tue 30 October – Sat 3 November 2007
Tue 6 – Sat 10 November
Tue 13 – Sat 17 November