How has Matthew Bourne contributed to the development of the independent contemporary dance scene in Britain?

Matthew Bourne.
Photo: Hugo Glendinning

Sir Matthew Bourne is an icon in British contemporary dance, who was knighted at the 2016 New Year’s Honours List for his services to dance. He is a pioneer in taking dance to wider audiences through the medium of film, and ensuring that his works are accessible to a diverse audience base in many different ways. The way he reworks classic ballets into modern and relevant pieces of theatre, telling stories that resonate with contemporary audiences whether they are young or old, dancers or non-dancers, is truly inspiring and heartwarming.

“[Matthew Bourne] has filled the theatre with warmth and love, qualities often lacking on the chillier shores of contemporary work.”

– Sarah Crompton for The Sunday Times

Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and The Car Man are just a handful of classic tales he twists to suit contemporary themes and issues. On the surface you admire the beautiful swirling ensembles and light-hearted comedy, but the strong characterisation, lavish multi-purpose set designs and intense aural accompaniment reveal darker themes and encourage realistic societal discussions: mental health, crime, lust, death, homosexuality, societal pressures. But you always leave a Bourne production with a warm, fuzzy feeling as if you have lived through those characters and entered their colourful worlds. And there’s something about the way he adopts original scores with little to no editing, and yet it so wonderfully enhances his work that you’d be sure he’d twisted it to fit his work. It’s a true testament to his talent as a choreographer.

So how does this relate to his contributions to the developments of the ICDSIB? (If you are unsure on how we can assess a choreographers contribute, check out this post first.)

  1. Firstly, Bourne is a key choreographer to provide income to Sadler’s Wells theatre (the home of contemporary dance) thus increasing their revenue, which in turn increases the amount of Arts Council funding (10% of takings to be precise). For example, Edward Scissorhands sold 95.000 tickets and ran for 11 weeks. That’s a lot of revenue! It has been said before that Bourne is a key factor in the financial success of Sadler’s Wells, so enabling more artists to be supported and a greater number of works to be commissioned. All in all, this means more contemporary artists are able to share their work and contribute to the experimental scene.
  2. His company, New Adventures, tours to more UK and international venues and gives more performances each year than any other UK dance company. This means that he is accessing a larger audience base than any other UK dance company – spreading awareness of British contemporary dance around the world and increasing the diversity of his audiences.
  3. Just one of the reasons that Bourne is so successful is down to his accessibility. He makes dance understandable and entertaining to all ages, genders, cultures, dancers and non-dancers. There are a few different ways that he achieves this. Firstly, his works are targeted to a family audience by using popular, well-known stories (such as Cinderella, Swan Lake, Edward Scissorhands, Sleeping Beauty…) meaning that even if you’re not a dance student you can easily follow the story line. He ensures this by using a theatrical approach: characters, facial expressions, body language, costume, lavish set design which clearly shows the dancers in a royal castle, or in a dirty garage. Use of standard comedy is also a factor here – ever noticed that no matter how many times people see the butler be pulled off stage by a mechanical dog in Swan Lake, they laugh their heads off? Furthermore, Bourne’s works explore universal themes which can relate to anyone, meaning he can capture the audiences hearts and attention even if they cannot follow the underlying themes. (More on this later).
  4. Finally, another way that his works are accessible to all is through TV, film and cinema. This means that those who are interested in his works but cannot afford to attend the theatre, or cannot get to a theatre where they perform, they are not disadvantaged. Just recently three of his most loved works have been available to watch for free on Sky Arts and Now TV on Sundays at 8pm. Many of his older works have been streamed on live TV channels in the past. In recent years, he has staged his new works in cinemas such as Cineworld and Vue, for example Swan Lake’s new 2018 version in 2019 and The Red Shoes in 2020 (though due to Covid-19 this has been postponed). Swan Lake became the first ballet to be shot in 3D for cinema and DVD release. This is a real key aspect of Bourne’s legacy to the development of dance. He opens contemporary dance to the wider public, the average Joe, and dance students allowing them to experience his art at a cheaper cost (sometimes for free!) This links back to the original new dance philosophies:

Dance is not just a highly specialised profession – it is a basic part of living and anyone should be encouraged to do it. 

  1. This leads me to my next point: Matthew Bourne continues to contribute to the development of contemporary dance by keeping up with technology. TV, Film and Cinema has been around for a long time, and we know that many artists have experimented with this technology in the past (Merce Cunningham’s Beach Birds for Camera, Lea Anderson’s Flesh and Blood, even John Chesworth’s appearances on BBC whilst director of Rambert Dance Company) but even now, in 2020, Bourne is the first (and only!) choreographer to film his works in 3D for cinema and DVD. Not only do people get to watch the beautiful choreography without travelling to the nearest theatre with a £40 ticket, they get to live it in 3D in the comfort of their own homes.
  2. Bourne evidences multiple of the ICDSIB characteristics, such as challenging themes. Let’s take the beloved Swan Lake, originally choreographed in 1995 full of sly digs towards the Royal Family and the Princess Diana scandal which was in the papers at the time. Then lets fast-forward 23 years later to the Lowry Theatre where I sat in awe with a group of my A-Level students who buzzed about how fantastic it was and how they could resonate with the Prince. How? How was Bourne able to take a classic tale and make it timeless in contemporary society? Well the Prince explores identity, homosexuality, loneliness and his struggles with being accepted by his mother, the Queen, and the public because of the responsibilities that came with his royal status. Neither me nor my students are of royal descent, but we certainly understood how it felt to be lonely and question your own identity as you battle with societal pressure, because it’s universal. Add to that the male ensemble of bare-chested swans and ensuring the Prince stares at the male statue just a second too long, and he did a Kim-K of the dance world and broke what we had of the internet in 1995. (Do not write that in your A-Level essays…)
  3. Bourne plays with new forms of staging through his highly theatrical, multi-purpose, transformable set designs which often have many rooms and levels. This immerses the audience in the story and makes it obvious to everyone where they are. For example, The Car Man opens in a garage. We know this instantly as we see the half-fixed cars, tool boxes and tyres around the edges, complete with industrial style lighting hanging from the ceiling and brick wall detailing. At the back is Dino’s office, a completely separate room styled with basic office furniture and detailed down to the stack of paperwork on the desk. Above that is the shower room accessible from a set of stairs, which fills with steam and smoke as the workers shower at the end of the day. In Swan Lake the white, gold, and red decor screams royalty and the bed used by the Prince is transformed into the royal balcony as the workers delightfully rotate it as the Queen and Prince wave to the masses!

Would you believe that isn’t even the full picture of Bourne’s contribution! Why don’t you brush up on some of his full-length works here and see if you can find your own evidence and interpretations?


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