Matthew Bourne: “We tell stories. It’s what we do best

“The big fear, the challenge, was to tell a story in a big space.” When Matthew Bourne was approached by the Royal Albert Hall to help celebrate its 150th birthday, the choreographer’s first thought was a ‘best of’ evening ‘like a ball with a full orchestra and accompanist’. But then came a change of heart. “I suddenly thought: why am I doing this? We tell stories. It’s what we do best. »

He was spoiled for choice – his famous headed man Swan Lake could surely be reworked for the arena presentation, ditto its candy color Nutcracker – but Bourne chose The car man, his black love triangle danced to Bizet. “It’s the most epic and melodramatic,” he tells me during rehearsals for the 14-performance series, which opens Thursday.

Bourne’s company, New Adventures, has been telling this particular story – a sexy drifter, a bored wife, a troublesome husband, an amorous gay mechanic – since 2000. The show has changed significantly with each revival, but the expansive stage and Albert Hall’s long sightlines meant another overhaul. The original cast of 17 has been increased to 39, the 14-man orchestra has been increased to 25, and Lez Brotherston’s seedy Midwestern garage has been expanded and completed with billboards serving as movie screens that will put highlight key points.

Matthew Bourne reworked ‘The Car Man’ to fit the size of the Royal Albert Hall © Hannah Norton

“We talked about having all the solos and duets filmed – like they do in concerts,” Bourne says, “but halfway through the process I thought: if we can’t tell the story with the performers, so we shouldn’t be doing it, so we just do complementary moments – almost like movie close-ups. The vastness of the space forces the dancers to dance much ‘louder’: “You have to remember a gesture a little longer so that everyone has time to see it.

The role of the drifter, Luca, will be shared between Will Bozier and Richard Winsor, former star of Victim, the BBC’s medicated soap. Winsor has danced and/or created nearly every major role in the New Adventures repertoire and performed in The car man for more than two decades. “I’ve done the show three times and this is my sixth character,” he says. In 2007, he played the unfortunate Angelo “but now, 15 years later, I am the charismatic alpha male, his polar opposite”.

Winsor’s run as Tony Manero in the recent revival of Saturday night fever at Sadler’s Wells could help him here, as could the research material Bourne always provides for even the smallest role: crib sheets, photographs and a mass of viewing assignments. This pie process is inspired by a host of films: West Side Story, Fat, fight club and, above all, the three film versions of James M Cain The postman always rings twice. Winsor is now quite familiar with this background material, but likes to create his own story: “I feel like Luca didn’t have a father. [He was] an only child [with] a mother who adored him.

Zizi Strallen (Lana) and Chris Trenfield (Luca) in the 2015 production of Sadler's Wells
Zizi Strallen and Chris Trenfield in Sadler’s Wells production of ‘The Car Man’ in 2015 © Bridgeman Images

In the past, New Adventures cast lists have sexed up with guest stars – Adam Cooper of the Royal Ballet was Bourne’s first Swan, Lynn Seymour played the wicked stepmother in Cinderellaand American Ballet Theater’s Marcelo Gomes starred in the 2015 revival of The car man – but Bourne no longer feels the need to import talent.

“I try not to,” he says. “Sometimes it seems like a good idea, but it doesn’t make the business that great to bring people in. In this one, we have Zizi Strallen coming back, but she’s been on a few shows before and I don’t don’t see. as a guest, i see her as part of the business.

Bourne’s commitment to his dancers and their career development has allowed him to build a loyal team. Apprentices become stars, stars evolve into coaches and administrators. Even non-corporate members can be transformed by the New Adventures experience. Guesting with Bourne has been a showbiz finishing school for Royal Ballet guests such as Matthew Ball (the swan in the 2018 revival) and many of the non-professionals involved in lord of the flies (co-written by Bourne and Scott Ambler) have done great things.

Bourne speaks proudly of this long-standing community dance project. “Callum Scott Howells was nominated for a Bafta for [the TV mini-series] It’s a sin. He was one of our lord of the flies boys. Michael O’Reilly [star of the Dirty Dancing stage show] was one of our boys. It had quite a big effect in helping people decide where they wanted to go in life.

Dancers Will Bozier and Ashley Shaw during rehearsals
Dancers Will Bozier and Ashley Shaw during rehearsals © Kaasam Aziz

Focusing so heavily on New Adventures means it will be a while before he choreographs another musical, despite the critical and financial success of Olivier !, my lovely lady and Married poppins.

“I made the decision a few years ago to really focus on the business. Even my love for MGM musicals and all that: I love that there was a team of people who all got better at what they were doing working on the next project: learning to sing at someone who couldn’t sing; teach someone who couldn’t dance to dance. Another consideration is the lack of autonomy: “Why get into a musical or a movie where it’s more of a producer-directed thing?”

This need for artistic control means that a Bourne screenplay is precisely that: strictly no playwrights. The master storyteller winces at the mere mention of them: “I don’t agree with those. This is the job of the choreographer. Don’t ask someone else to tell you what to do. It’s ridiculous. And it’s not pure because you didn’t do it yourself. I think that’s why it’s often more confusing when you involve other people. I don’t believe in scripts in programs either: it’s my job of telling the story, not your try to read everything first. If you don’t get it, then there’s something I need to do about it.

Musical royalties are extremely welcome but exclusive control is very precious to him. “I’m so lucky to be able to come up with an idea, work with my regular colleagues and make it happen. This is a rarity for most choreographers, even for directors. Why give up on that?

June 9-19, royalalberthall.com

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