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Daily Telegraph Saturday 27 September 1997

Cinderella's brand-new fella

Matthew Bourne's radical reworking of 'Swan Lake' took the ballet and theatre worlds by storm.
His new version of 'Cinderella' looks set to do the same.
He talks to Simon Blow

MATTHEW Bourne, Britain's most arresting new dance choreographer, likes to make it clear at the outset that his group, Adventures in Motion Pictures, is not a ballet company. Talking to me between rehearsals in the drill hall of the Territorial Army centre in Kennington, south London, he says, "I would describe us as a dance theatre company. I've never been trying to compete with classical ballet. What I'm doing is telling a story with all the emotions and drama of a play, except there are no words."

Bourne is a quiet and modest person, and whatever anxieties he may have in following the huge success of his most recent show, Swan Lake, are barely evident. Swan Lake, set to Tchaikovsky's score, became the longest-running so-called "commercial ballet" ever to hit the West End. Bourne was surprised and, in keeping with his modesty, puts it down to the all-male swan cast.

"I didn't expect that kind of success. While I was making it I didn't even think about it, then it came on and had this amazing reaction. The male swans became a news item and that made it reach a wider public. But I do get a little annoyed when people refer to it as the all-male Swan Lake; there were women in it. Some people actually came away from it thinking the women must be men in drag."

The gay label attached to his Swan Lake doesn't bother him because, of course, he says it was essentially there. Yet immensely popular though it will always be, it did disturb serious balletomanes. Why had Bourne abandoned the Ivanov choreography, traditionally used in all productions of Swan Lake? He answers that quite simply. "We're not a ballet company and my girls are not trained to dance on pointe. We couldn't have done it. They're trained in contemporary dance. And anyway that choreography has been used hundreds of times. I wanted something different."

Now Bourne is doing final rehearsals for his newest dance entertainment, Cinderella, set to Prokofiev's score. His way of presenting dance, however, is different enough to have attracted former Royal Ballet star, Adam Cooper, now a member of his company, and this time, on loan from the Royal Ballet, the exquisite dancer Sarah Wildor. The Cinderella fairy-tale has been danced many times but never quite as Bourne is conceiving it.

Prokofiev wrote the music during the Second World War, and Bourne has turned it into a wartime fairy-story. "The war must have touched Prokofiev as he wrote it," says Bourne, "and also it's not like a conventional ballet score; a lot of it's more like film music."

This suits him perfectly. Old movies are Bourne's greatest influence. He's never forgotten his boyhood years in Hackney when he watched hundreds of old films on television. His Cinderella takes its theme from a classic Powell and Pressburger film, A Matter of Life and Death, starring David Niven, where Death fails to claim a wartime pilot because of fog in the English Channel. A heavenly court has to decide whether the pilot should be allowed his span on Earth or whether he should take his place among the heavenly dead.

So there's no prince, no royal ball in Bourne's Cinderella. "The prince is a pilot - an ordinary wartime pilot - a sort of David Niven type," says Bourne. "He turns up at Cinderella's house wounded, but has time to fall in love with her before he's chucked out by the wicked stepmother. The only sex change I've made is the Fairy Godmother - he's a man, and I call him The Angel.

"I thought it would be more powerful to have a man as her guide rather than a woman in a big dress," Bourne adds, laughing. "He's also symbolic of the Angel of Death hovering over London. And the ball I've set on New Year's Eve in a London wartime dance hall. But, true to the original, Cinderella doesn't get an invitation.

'Instead of the carriage, she's taken out of her house by the Angel and experiences war dreams as she walks through the blackout. But Cinderella gets injured in an air-raid and the ball takes place in her delirium. And the hall where the ball happens looks as if it's just been bombed, and then it rights itself - like going backwards - and there's the impression that the people at the ball are being brought back to life. It's like a haunted ballroom. I wanted to stress that uncertainty which war creates."

Bourne pauses, worried that he's giving too much away. "It's like a film plot - a wartime romance where they lose each other and find each other again." But he's carried away by his own excitement and can't stop. "The family's not at all simple. The stepmother's an alcoholic and the father's a First World War veteran. He's in a wheelchair, and it was thinking of Michael Redgrave when he had Parkinson's that gave me that idea. But there's a subplot, which is implied, that the stepmother murdered Cinderella's real mother and that Cinderella knows this, which is why the stepmother wants to keep her shut away. But I've done away with making Cinderella a servant - she does things in the house - but not as a servant."

Bourne works freely with invention, and a lack of a classical ballet training has been a blessing there. He did his dance training in his twenties - he is now 37 - at the contemporary dance Laban Centre and emerged without inhibitions. He dispenses easily with many of classical ballet conventions, seeing them as an interruption to the entertainment he wants to present.

"There are certain types of step that classic ballet does," he reflects, "which don't actually mean anything. All those turns for example. And then there are all the constant pauses and the bows in the middle of a story ... well, a theatre audience can't accept that. I may enjoy it when I see it, but it's not what I'm doing with my troupe."

The large audiences that Swan Lake drew included thousands of theatre- and entertainment-lovers, along with the smaller ballet crowd. Bourne has inspired envy from other directors who are also trying to update ballet, and they wonder how he pulls it off.

He thinks it's much more straightforward. "People like to see this company as avant-garde and shaking up the ballet world - but the ballet world stays as it is. We don't shake them up very much. What we're doing is really quite old-fashioned. It's telling a story. There are laughs, there are tears - big emotions, old-fashioned values, you could say."

Then, before I go, he thinks again about his unanticipated success. "I suppose we are revolutionary - it's like a form people are experiencing for the first time. It's an evening of dance and drama without words. That may sound naive to a dance audience, but most of our audience aren't that. They're a theatre and cinema audience, and some have said to me, 'After a bit we realised that nobody had said anything.' " Which kept them there transfixed? "Yes," he says, "the formula is as simple as that."

And Matthew Bourne goes back to rehearse his troupe, who wait flexing their legs as dancers do. With only days to go, he must still finalise the plot for what seems certain to be a repeat achievement.

Cinderella previews from Friday and opens on October 7 at the Piccadilly Theatre

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