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Matthew Bourne's lord of the dance? Fred Astaire - Louise Flind

Blog | By Louise Flind | Jan 03, 2024

Matthew Bourne, choreographer of Swan Lake and Mary Poppins, adores Gene Kelly – and Fred and Ginger. By Louise Flind

What are your earliest childhood holiday memories?

I come from the East End and we’d go to holiday camps and love it. There were fancy-dress and knobbly-knees competitions, and outmoded things like beauty pageants. We discovered camping in France when I was 12, and went to Spain when I was about 13. It was lovely discovering things with Mum and Dad.

What is your favourite venue for musicals and ballet?

Our home base is Sadler’s Wells and it’s unique in that it presents only dance. But we’re a touring company as well and we go to many lovely theatres. I’ve got a soft spot for the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, where I went as a teenager. The East End singalong feeling gave me a love of a certain type of theatre.

What is your favourite ballet?

You’ve got to love them to do them, really. I study them a lot and know all the versions and try and find something that’s mine. The more you study them, the more you love them. And I love Frederick Ashton’s work.

What is your favourite musical?

West Side Story’s a pretty perfect musical and I’m a real succour for Rodgers and Hammerstein.

What is your favourite dance style?

Fred-and-Ginger style – something akin to ballroom and musical theatre, and I can’t resist tap.

Was it a natural progression from dancer to choreographer?

I started training when I was 22 and never expected to have any career as a dancer. Directing and choreographing were something from childhood. I used to put on shows with my brother – he’d be my Ginger…

Do you miss dancing?

Not really – I live through the dancers I work with so much.

How did you come up with your famous Swan Lake?

I hit on the idea of male swans instead of female swans, and creating movement that is swanlike but with different bodies, so it would essentially look different.

What did you think of Billy Elliot? Did it open up access to ballet?

I think it’s had a really good influence on young guys who want to get into dance but, then again, our Swan Lake has as well, and I think Strictly has too.

Who is your favourite dancer?

Fred Astaire, always.

Who was the better dancer, Fred or Ginger?

There’s a lot of joy in her, where he’s quite slick and amazing. The combination is unbeatable.

Are you a fan of Gene Kelly?

I’m a friend of Gene’s widow, Patricia Kelly, and I’ve learnt so much about Gene’s work. She says he was much happier behind the scenes than on screen and I think that’s the difference between him and Astaire, who was very uninterested in that. My heart is with Astaire and my head is with Gene.

What’s the process of taking Mary Poppins and Edward Scissorhands and turning it into dance?

You try to capture the essence of what people love about them, and then do something completely different. People still feel they’ve experienced what they love about that piece.

What are the best books/stories that transfer into dance – or can you dance about anything?

Simple stories and simple, big themes are good for dance – love stories and sex.

Are you a traveller?

My partner, Arthur, and I try to do a little adventure twice a year. We’ve just been to see the Northern Lights.

Where did you go on your honeymoon?

We didn’t really go anywhere – we didn’t really have a wedding [he laughs]. We had a civil partnership and it was very, very quiet.

Do you lie on the beach?

I had a little cancer scare a few years back and I need to keep out of the sun.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?

Horrible sea-sluggy things in Japan – I find the sushi out there is rather scary…

What’s your biggest headache?

Not knowing enough about the place I’m in and feeling I’m missing out.

What is the strangest place you’ve ever slept in – while being away?

I slept in a tepee once on Catalina Island, just off Los Angeles, on a tour with the company. I didn’t enjoy it because I felt the creepy-crawlies were coming in.