Left – Matthew Bourne. Photo – Hugo Glendinning
There is a sense of hushed excitement about the Arts Centre. British choreographer Matthew Bourne, now Sir Matthew having been recently knighted for services to dance in the Queen’s New Years Honours, is in Melbourne casting for a local production of his Lord of the Flies. People seem to buzz a little even mentioning his name.
I can’t say I am immune to the excitement myself but meeting him, I am struck by how instantly approachable and warm he is. He has a ready smile and an air of abundant enthusiasm. He seems amused, maybe even a little self conscious, about his recent ascension to the ranks of chivalry.
“It was very unexpected, because it’s such an ancient thing, you know?” he says. “It’s been going since the Knights of the Round Table and you still have the sword and everything… I laughed a lot when I first got the letter.“
Though newly dubbed, Sir Matthew has been at the forefront of the dance world for over two decades. He is perhaps most famous for his version of Swan Lake, which reimagined the tale as a gay romance with a male swan and is known to many from its appearance in the film Billy Elliot, but he regards his work as more contemporary than ballet. This makes his knighthood all the more significant, as he is the first artist of his kind to receive one.
“There’s only been about six in the whole of time in the dance world and they’ve all been Royal Ballet people,” he says. “I felt as though I should celebrate it for my profession in a way, opening those things up to wider possibilities for people.”
“Do people call you Sir Matthew all the time?” I ask him. “Does that take getting used to?”
“Well they get it wrong,” he says affably. “They call me Sir Bourne sometimes but then when you correct them it sounds like you’re being really pedantic, so it’s best to leave it. No, I get called all sorts of things! Somebody curtseyed at me last night. Why I don’t know! I prefer people to call me Matt really.”
His most popular works have included adaptations of unlikely source material, such as Dorian Gray (2008) and Edward Scissorhands (2005). His take on Lord of the Flies, William Golding’s classic tale of children gone feral, is a different direction for him again.
A coproduction between his dance company, New Adventures, and Re:Bourne, the company’s charitable arm which runs youth programs, it features a cast of both professional dancers and young people, some of whom may have never danced before. The concept for a mixed cast show was originally brought to him by the Scottish arts council, Creative Scotland, who wanted a project to engage youth from disadvantaged areas in Glasgow. Lord of the Flies was the first idea that came to mind.
“As soon as I had the idea, it felt so right for it, because you need young people to make it work in a way,” he says. “It’s about young people and it’s about rawness. It’s not about beautifully trained technique, it’s about young people becoming savage and the rawer that can be the better really.”
He says the first run of the show, in Glasgow in 2010, was a little scary, with the cast of neophyte performers carrying the weight of expectation of a New Adventures / Matthew Bourne show.
“These were essentially people who had not been on a stage before and you didn’t really know what they were going to do. You still don’t really. As soon as an audience are in, some of them start to do odd things. They’ll be standing where they’re not meant to be, just staring at the audience.”
Sir Matthew says it was almost a shock that the first show came together but come together it did and has done so to acclaim in fourteen different cities around the UK. Each production recruits a fresh cast of local youth, making each version unique.
“The personality of the boys is always different, depending on what city it is,” he says. “If it’s more an urban place they tend to be more confident, more lively, more unruly maybe. Then there are other places you go where they are all polite and it’s hard to get them to get savage and get into it in that way. It’s just the nature of where they live.”
“I think it will be the same here,” he says of the upcoming Melbourne production, for which he is currently putting out the call for youth applicants. “It will have the flavour of Melbourne and Victoria State. It will have that feeling of this community.”
The Melbourne show will be the first international production of Lord and Sir Matthew says it is the only city outside the UK where it will be happening. Local ambassadors for New Adventures will be running workshops over the Australian spring to identify raw talent. From these, roughly a hundred boys will be selected for the auditions in January and from them will come a final cast of twenty four.
They will work with dancers from New Adventures, as well as several Australian professionals. Sir Matthew says the professional members of the cast are hand picked as mentors as well as dancers.
“I pick a mixture of guys who can be role models to these young people. I’ve got some very laddish kind of guys. There’s always a couple of gay guys who are very open about that and they have their little group who go towards them and think, oh it’s cool I can be who I want to be, I can be who I am.”
Observing how the professional dancers get along, he says, shows the boys a world that they can feel part of.
“The gay aspect of it is not spoken about very much because it’s sort of frightening for parents, but there is an element of that which is very important. Sometimes you get an isolated young guy who’s the only boy in his ballet class or something similar. He comes and meets other like-minded young men and the parents are so thrilled, they say ‘you’ve given him so much confidence now about what he likes to do.’ Then you get the guy who is potentially a national rugby player and actually wants to become a dancer. It’s the classic story that newspapers like but we actually have had that happen.”
Sir Matthew is aiming for the audition process itself to be a positive experience for applicants, regardless of the outcome. In Britain, he’s seen the show have wide-reaching positive influence, as the young performers each draw their own personal support networks to the theatre.
“It has a bigger effect than just the boys who are in it somehow. You’ve got a whole lot of young people come because they want to see their mates who have got into it and they’re seeing other young people on stage doing amazing things. That maybe inspires them to think “oh I wish I’d done this now, I wish I’d put myself forward for it.” The families maybe start to become regulars or maybe start to think, this is a place where I’m welcome, look what it did for my son.’”
Sir Matthew himself came to dance only in his early twenties. Despite a long-standing passion for performance, he never imagined he could become a dancer himself.
“Even from about 18 onwards I was thinking it was too late, I’m too old to start training,” he recalls.
His attitude changed when working as an usher at the National Theatre in London.
“Everyone there was studying to do something, all the other ushers, and I met a guy who was the same age as me who only the year before had done a production of West Side Story and really got into dance. He had auditioned for the Contemporary Dance School and had got in and I thought well why am I not doing that? If he can do it, I can do it.”
He applied to dance school – the Laban Centre for Dance and Movement – armed only with passion. “I went and auditioned and it was literally the first dance class that I’d ever done. But there was also an interview and I think they were a bit impressed by all the things I’d seen and read. To be honest with you I think they thought, ‘well he’ll probably be a critic or something, or he’ll do something around dance, he won’t be a dancer’. But I got in.”
“They were desperate for men at the time of course,” he muses.
Although he says gender ratios in dance are now closer to equal, young men do still need extra encouragement to get involved. This was indeed one of the specific goals behind the project that became Lord of the Flies.
“Also funnily enough when we talked to the estate of William Golding, one of their stipulations was that it must be an all male cast, not girls dressed as boys or anything like that. The daughter of Golding, Judy Carver, said he wouldn’t have agreed with that, it would have to be boys.”
Golding’s story, he says, is resonant with the boys who come into the show. The themes it explores – cliques forming and coming into conflict, peer pressure, bullying – are things they readily identify with.
“They don’t often ask why are we doing this,” he says. “It’s a natural thing for them. They are young boys, it’s what it’s about. They are at that point in their lives.“
He says there is also a different energy when working with all male dancers.
“I’ve experienced it quite a lot with Swan Lake. The swans as a group of men… there is an atmosphere and a brotherhood that forms.”
He sees the same brotherhood in Lord of the Flies, even across the comparatively wide age range of the performers.
“I think if it was mixed it would be a bit different. Especially boys of that age, bring some girls into the room and it all goes crazy.“
Sir Matthew leaves the age range for casting relatively open, from as young as twelve to men in their early twenties who, as he himself was, are late arrivals to the art.
“I don’t want to rule those people out. Although there might be professionals in the show who are younger than them, they are professionals, they’re properly trained. Dancers become very professional at a very early age. We’ve got to have room for guys who are not from those sort of communities or not from those sort of families maybe who have put them in that direction and have found this thing they’re passionate about a bit later on in life.”
“Do you see yourself reflected in the boys coming through the program?” I ask him.
“I do, because I know what I was like at that time. I remember the first show I did. It was so magical to me! I remember the smell of the makeup and the costume and everything. It stayed with me from about the age of eight.”
His eyes gleam as he recalls it. Even now, as a world class choreographer, an arts legend, a dance knight, you can see on his face the excitement of a boy discovering a new and wonderful world.
Lord of the Flies will be playing at the Melbourne Arts Centre in April 2017. For information about performances and cast auditions, visit artscentremelbourne.com.au