Sleeping Beauty: now with added vampires

Although it uses most of the Tchaikovsky music, Matthew Bourne’s gothic-flavoured reworking of the ballet is quite a departure from the original

Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty is a contemporary telling. Photograph: Simon Annand

Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty is a contemporary telling. Photograph: Simon Annand


Matthew Bourne doesn’t miss dancing. He might be a renowned English choreographer and director, but dancing on stage is no longer his bag. “I was always in pain when I was dancing. I always woke up in pain, and then as soon as I stopped, I didn’t. I quite enjoyed just being normal,” he says.

“I loved performing more than I loved dancing, I think; I loved being on the stage. When I’m watching one of my own shows, I feel like I’m in it. It’s so representative of me that I don’t miss that. I just live through the current dancers, and they’re all better than I ever was anyway.”

He was a late starter, entering dance college at the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance aged 22. However, he feels this has benefited him in the long term, as a director. “I probably would have been better if I’d started younger as a dancer, but I’m grateful for it now because I feel like I had so many other experiences before it that go into what I do now. I feel I connect more with audiences than some dance does, because my subject matter isn’t just dance, it’s other things. I lived a bit and travelled a bit, all sorts of things I wouldn’t have done if I’d started dance at a young age like some dancers do,” he says.

As a director he is doing something right. He is a five-time Olivier award winner and was awarded an OBE for services to dance in 2003. He’s also the only British director to have received Tony awards for both best direction of a musical and best choreography.

Both Tony Awards were for his work on Swan Lake, which had all-male swans and is probably the work he’s best known for. However, when it first premiered at Sadler’s Wells in 1995, Bourne had no idea what it would become.

“We thought it was going to be on for two weeks and that was it. That felt like a lot at the time – like ‘Wow, two weeks’. There was nothing expected about what happened with that piece, because it had never happened before. Doing a ballet in the West End, on Broadway, it was one unusual thing after another,” he says.

“It’s special because of what it did for me, and I’m grateful for it and I still love it when it comes back. The reason I still love it is that other pieces have been successful as well. If it had been the only successful piece, and I was trying to follow it up all the time, I’d probably grow to hate it.”

Into rehearsals

Bourne is waiting to go into rehearsals with the cast of Sleeping Beauty, which is gearing up for its second run (its first was in 2012). We’re at 3 Mills Studios on the outskirts of east London, and Masterchef is being filmed in the next room.

His cast are about to go into technical week before the tour begins, and Bourne is still adding small tweaks to the routines.

Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty is quite a departure from the original version, although it still uses most of the Tchaikovsky music. It’s still a fairy tale, but a gothic fairy tale, he says, and he has added a number of new characters and elements.

“I’ve invented a new love interest for Aurora, someone who she’s in love with before she gets the curse of the 100-year sleep, so he has to work out how he can be there for her when she wakes up. That’s his dilemma.

“That’s where the vampire thing comes in, because vampires have eternal life. It’s sort of become known as the vampire Sleeping Beauty. I promise you it wasn’t done to bring in audiences who love Twilight. I haven’t even seen Twilight,” he says.

Although most people would probably claim to know the story of Sleeping Beauty, Bourne doubts if most people know the ballet at all. Because the Disney version is better-known, he has fewer concerns about potentially “ruining” a classic by changing it.

“The Disney version of Sleeping Beauty is almost a one-off version. It doesn’t exist anywhere else; it’s something they made up. It’s not the original story. They didn’t tell the story as it should have been anyway. You can’t ruin these things because they’ve all been done so many different way.”

Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty is a contemporary telling rather than straight ballet.

“In ballet companies now, they’re doing so many other things, they’re bringing a lot of contemporary choreography,” says Bourne. “For me, it feels it should be a dance company rather than a ballet company, because they’re being asked to dance so many different styles. We have to move with the times a bit, don’t we? I like the sense of history and I want to see classic works, but it’s of another era and it feels different. You want to see relevant work, contemporary work that represents now, and you can learn from the past for that work. I love the combination of the two.”

Far from being a ballet snob, Bourne is happy to defend Strictly Come Dancing. “There is snobbery about it. I don’t see why. I think it’s brought this love of dance to so many people in a good way. There’s something very genuine about it, because you’re actually seeing people learn to dance, and you can’t disguise whether they’re good or bad. It’s moving sometimes,” he says.

“Also, it encourages young people, particularly young guys. When they see sportsmen, pop stars, athletes and people they admire dancing, it’s great. The stigma’s not there when you see those people do what they do. It makes it so much more acceptable for young people to get involved.”

Inspiring young people

He hopes his shows inspire young people to take up dance. That’s something he consciously considers when creating and casting shows.

“It’s why I do the kind of work I do and why I want the dancers I pick: so people can see on stage people they feel they can be; not so extreme and godlike that it’s almost beyond what you can imagine yourself being. I like young people being able to sit there and think, I want to be that. A lot of them don’t look like what you expect dancers to look like, and I think that’s great for young people,” he says.

His company, New Adventures, has 12 shows on rotation, and he has racked up numerous awards, but Bourne’s proudest achievement is simply building an audience for dance.

“It’s a phenomenally sized audience for a dance company. It’s so way beyond all the others. I’m grateful for it and I’m grateful that the audience trust me . . . I’m not saying this to blow my own trumpet, but it is an achievement to have won over that audience of people who don’t normally go and see this kind of work, and the fact they keep coming back.”

  • Sleeping Beauty is at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre November 10th-14th
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