The wild swans of cool
It was 1994, and Matthew Bourne's small-scale touring company, Adventures in Motion Pictures was already known among the dance cognoscenti for its wit and risk-taking. Bourne's version of The Nutcracker a year earlier had raised the roof with its Chippendale-style Nutcracker and sex-pot Sugar Plum Fairy.
Highland Fling, his take on Giselle set in a Gorbals tenement complete with all-tartan costumes and set (including ironing board) promised more of the same. Then, as the story of the mortal who falls in love with a fairy reached its denouement, the hilarity evaporated like the Scottish mists, when the leading man cut the fairy's wings off with a pair of garden shears. "It was saying something about what men are really like," explains Bourne, "because he wanted someone to do the ironing basically and not the wonderful amazing woman that he ran off with. We used blood and people were shocked by it. It was so unexpected you could hear a pin drop. It wasn't ugly or offensive; it wasn't that sort of shock. It was shocking-sad and really moving. And so I thought, I love doing this, I love making people cry. This is great, you can play with emotions, if it comes from the right place and it's heartfelt and if it's truthful to the piece."
This Damascene revelation led directly to Bourne's groundbreaking Swan Lake in which the swans are danced by men. The company has just returned from a record-breaking run on Broadway, picking up a further 14 awards (including three Tonys) to add to the crop that followed the West End run in 1996. This roster of prizes, not to mention unheard-of box office success for a dance company, reflects the heart-breaking balance Bourne achieves between humour and tragedy. It opens tonight at London's Dominion Theatre this week for a valedictory six-week run.
Anyone who thinks that AMP's Swan Lake is just a gay piss-take can think again. The decision to replace delicate ballerinas with muscular males had less to do with the shock-value of a gay love story, he says, than the potential it offered of exploring the psyche of a prince locked into a world by which he feels completely alienated.
It's not so much that the swan is male, that attracts him, but that it is a wild creature. "It's very symbolic of what the prince wants to be or hasn't got in his life: the freedom of a swan, the wildness of a swan. Is this his alter ego? All these questions suddenly became possible. He's had the vision of this swan in his mind since he was young. And then suddenly this real man gatecrashes the ball. He's like the swan: he does what he likes, he flirts with everyone, and that's an attraction for him. Only then does it start to turn into a sexual thing, which he - being this repressed madman royal - can't really come to terms with. " (The laughs come courtesy of the dysfunctional royal family, which in in 1995 was at full internecine throttle with Diana, Fergie and Camilla.)
Until Swan Lake, Bourne had always cast from among his own company, but for the Swan - who must combine the lyricism of the white swan with the badboy charisma of the black swan - fate brought him a young dancer from the Royal Ballet, Adam Cooper.
Cooper had seen Highland Fling during its run at Sam Mendes's Donmar Warehouse, round the corner from Covent Garden and mentioned to a third party that he would love to work with Bourne. "So I thought, wouldn't that be a great idea? A man-creature from another world, the Royal Ballet? And it was a great idea, and what a wonderful thing for both of us to be able to have done that."
Although Cooper had his admirers among the critics, he wasn't being treated as a star within the Royal Ballet, Bourne remembers. Cooper's high profile shift brought welcome publicity for the show. He electrified audience and critics with his leather-clad, sex-on-legs black swan.
Four years on he is returning to the unlikely role that made him one of the ballet world's hottest properties, sharing it with his brother Simon (ex-Rambert) and William Kemp, a stunning 22-year-old dancer who came up through AMP.
The next classic which will get the AMP treatment, is Carmen. Although the score is Bizet, that's where the similarities end, admits Bourne. The Car Man is loosely based on the 1940s movie, The Postman Always Rings Twice. In Bourne's version a drifter gets a job as a garage mechanic and begins a smouldering affair with the young wife of an older husband with tragic consequences.
It's no mistake that Bourne's company is called Adventures in Motion Pictures. Film was where it all began. Bourne's parents were both film and theatre fans. And from the age of five or six, Sunday afternoons were spent watching musicals on TV, Bourne remembers. "I just wanted to copy them. I would go and see a Disney film, maybe, when I was seven or eight, Mary Poppins or The Lady and The Tramp. Then I would go home and do my show of it, my memory." His brother and friends down the road in Walthamstow, east London would make up the cast.
Matthew Bourne has come full circle: among his forthcoming projects is a stage version of the Tim Burton film Edward Scissorhands, and negotiations are well under way. But what about returning the compliment? Is he about to follow his friend Sam Mendes to Hollywood? Bourne admits he has been tempted. When in Los Angeles recently with both Swan Lake and Cinderella, several people made the point that dance is like silent cinema. "It's all cinematic, and that's what movie directing is all about. So I get very encouraged and think, yeah, I'd love to do that.
"Because I love films. But then I realise, I don't know anything about making a film or the language of film-making. I don't study or analyse, I just enjoy watching it. Whereas theatre I feel very much at home with, because I completely understand what works and what doesn't."
Bourne is unusual for a choreographer in that he places as much importance on dancers' acting as on their dancing. He would love to try directing a straight play.
HAS AMP's small revolution had any long-term effects on the tradition-bound ballet world? Adam Cooper is now a major star, but there was no denying the sour-grapes attitude when he returned to the Royal Ballet. "They didn't make anything of the fact that they had this major star in the company. The first thing they did was stick a fox's head on him in Beatrix Potter and had him doing a cavalier in Sleeping Beauty - you know, holding Darcey Bussell's hand. They didn't even mention that he had done the Swan in his biography in the programme." However, when Adam Cooper's wife Sarah Wildor joined her husband for Cinderella, the Royal Ballet management seemed to have learnt that the knock-on publicity was not to be shunned.
What is certain is that the climate in which dancers are entering the profession is changing. Young people whose first experience of ballet is AMP, says Bourne, have AMP in their sights as the company they want to work with.
But Matthew Bourne denies he is on a crusade to loosen up traditional ballet. It's not his job to tell other companies how to do things, he says. "Because we're really not a ballet company, were a modern dance company. So we don't have to uphold tradition. I suppose our crusade is to truly to make dance accessible to a wide audience. I want to tell stories but not to alienate anyone, and I mean anyone, really. What I'm tying to do is pieces that can be read on many levels, that are not insulting or condescending to people who know the ballet very well, but also that can be understood without having to read the scenario in the programme beforehand, which is what happens at the ballet or the opera.
"If you did that in a film or a theatre, no one would want to see it. It's silly. People still come to our shows now and say `Where's the scenario?' And we say, `You don't need one. Just go up, relax and follow it.' That's my personal crusade."
When I ask why he has not brought Swan Lake to Dublin, Bourne is rueful. He would love to come to Ireland, he says, and will, if someone can come up with the money. With a full orchestra (27 musicians) and 40 dancers - to make it commercially viable, three casts of principals are needed to do eight shows a week - it's an expensive show to put on. The English tour that has preceded the return to the West End only happened because the theatres involved formed a consortium, where the big theatres guaranteed to meet any losses incurred by small venues. "It was a revolution," explains Bourne. "It has never happened before." As so much else which involves AMP.
Matthew Bourne and his Adventures in Motion Picture, edited by Alastair Macauley, is published by Faber
Swan Lake is at the Dominion Theatre, London, until March 11th. To book phone 00-44-870-6063456