You are renowned for your ability to take the fairy-tales we know and love and reconfigure them in new ways. Your most recent project, Cinderella, has been set in the Second World War. How did you decide on this period of history?
I’m always trying to look for something different in a famous story and find a different take. I fell in love with Prokofiev’s score watching the Frederick Ashton version at the Royal Ballet. When I investigated it further, I found out that Prokofiev wrote it during the Second World War and it was originally premiered at the Bolshoi just after the war in 1946. When I listened to it with those ears, with the idea of that period and that time, it all came to me. It just made total sense.
There is an ominous feeling, even within the fairy-tale setting. Despite the feeling of doom, there’s also something magical about love winning through the darkness. It all adds up when you put it in the context of the Second World War: people going missing, the incredibly powerful image of the shoe in the rubble in a blitzed-out London, people falling in love very quickly and dancing like there’s no tomorrow. We may all die tomorrow, so let’s all have a wonderful time – there’s that sort of spirit within it. The real impetus for this theme was the music itself and when it was written.
When any composer writes, there’s something of the period that goes into what they’re writing – although Prokofiev’s intention was to write in the style of Tchaikovsky, the historical context is clear within the music.
The Second World War is still within lived memory for many people – how did you combine this harsh reality with the fairy-tale elements of Cinderella?
My version of Cinderella is also based on a real-life incident in the Second World War, when the Café de Paris had a direct hit, while people were dancing and the band was playing. People felt they were safe because it was underground – they felt it was almost like being in a bunker. Many people were killed.
It’s like a bombed ballroom coming back to life. Cinderella gets injured during a blitz scene, and the prince is a sort of heroic pilot. Once you’ve got a setting, it’s easy to weave a very familiar story into that setting. It’s one of the great things about the use of fairy-tales in dance. The audience knows the basis of the story already, so you’ve got a head start – they know there’ll be a shoe, and you don’t have to explain it. You can be a bit more daring with it.
How did you incorporate the sounds of the war into Prokofiev’s score?
We decided to create a huge, cinematic sound, so recorded the music with a very large orchestra – the size of orchestra we could never afford to tour with. We then incorporated the sounds of the bombs going off and rumbles in the distance, which were woven into the score in a sensitive way. It doesn’t overwhelm the score but it definitely adds to the atmosphere of the filmic story.
In the concert setting it’s presented in surround sound like you’d get in a cinema, which created a much more all-embracing soundworld than you usually get in a theatre. It’s very different to having a live orchestra or band. The sound is all around you, and it’s very powerful and immersive.
How do you work with the scores of composers like Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky? How does a choreographer really get into these scores?
If something has been written as a piece to tell a story, you’re half the way there. It’s helpful when the music has been written with dramatic intention in mind. The composer has written music to tell a story of incidents and moments within it, so I try and be faithful to the order in which it’s written.
To get into the music, I listen to it in great detail to work out what’s inside it, and try to wipe away any other versions I’ve seen from my mind. The music ends up being like a script for me and my company. It tells us what to do. You don’t impose anything on it, you use it. Instrumentation becomes very important for characterisation, as certain sounds in the orchestra are often used for different character motifs.
One of the biggest notes I always give a company about halfway through the run is that they should return to the music and express what the music is saying, and it’s always a better show that night when I say that.
Do you feel like you now know the intricacies of these composers’ music quite well now?
Technically, no – I have no technical skill whatsoever! I’m just a fan and I listen as anyone else would, and I know it inside out! I count music as I hear it, I don’t count it like a musician would, and I remember I once worked on The Nutcracker with quite a famous conductor called David Lloyd-Jones, who was a real Tchaikovsky expert. I remember him coming into the room as I was counting music and I was so embarrassed having him sitting there. I said to him, ‘I apologise for how I count! It’s just as I hear it, I go along with the melody line’. He thought about it for a minute and said, ‘That’s absolutely right, that’s what an audience hears – you’re interpreting the music as an audience would hear it’. And that felt good, it gave me permission to decipher music in this way! I go with the emotion, and I don’t listen to it in a technical way, which somehow allows me to be more expressive with the music.
You’ve created choreography for lots of classic musicals, such as My Fair Lady. How does working with this music differ?
I don’t work in a particularly different way, except with the performers themselves, because you have vastly different levels of skill. But I respect that music as much as anything else. I think there’s a reason why we still love these pieces! A lot of operas were popular pieces in their day, because they were written for the public in the same way that musical theatre is.
Out of interest, what music do you listen to on a day to day basis?
All sorts of things. I love the golden age of American song: my favourite singer is Ella Fitzgerald, I listen to her a lot. I listen to quite a variety of music across the genres. A composer I really love is Percy Grainger – he’s Australian but his work sounds like the ultimate English composer. I choreographed dances to his pieces in the early days, and I find his music wonderful, and don’t think he’s celebrated enough. There’s so much to discover with him too, because he did so many arrangements of works by other composers.
Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella is currently touring the UK. Tickets are available here. It will also be screened in cinemas at these venues on Tuesday 15 May, accompanied by a live Q&A with Matthew himself.