Bourne To Dance

Choreographer Matthew Bourne discusses his latest production of Nutcracker! 

Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker! premiered at Sadler’s Wells in 2002 and became an instant hit with audiences and critics, becoming the first ballet to be screened by BBC1 in more than 20 years.

Ahead of its run at Belfast's Grand Opera House, Olivier Award-winning choreographer and director Bourne discusses what makes his production of Tchaikovsky's classic unique.

Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker is now more than 100 years old. Why does it remain so popular? 

It’s about growing up and it’s about first love and these are themes that we can all relate to. They're particularly relevant to this production, which casts adult performers as a group of very needy young orphans. It’s also a touching coming of age story told through the dreams - and nightmares - of a particular young girl, Clara.

I also think Nutcracker has retained its perennial appeal because of Tchaikovsky’s incredible score. Act one contains some of his most engaging and, at times, profound story-telling music. Act two has one glorious melody after another. After 115 years it retains its mystery, magic and the power to transport us to another world.

Your first production of Nutcracker! was for Opera North in 1992 as part of the work’s centenary celebrations. You then revived the piece in 2002. Why have you chosen to revisit the piece now?

It’s a production that is very fondly remembered by those who saw it and those that performed in it. It was the first full-evening story ballet that I had the chance to choreograph and started me on an unexpected journey, creating new and alternative productions of other classic works (La Sylphide, Swan Lake, Cinderella, The Car Man).

When I was asked if I would take it on, it wasn't something that I would have ever contemplated. After all, we were a small touring company of 6 dancers, so a large-scale classical ballet wasn't a realistic option. It didn’t take me long to realise, though, that this was a gift and a challenge that couldn’t be passed up.

The experience of creating it was a very happy one. With only five weeks rehearsal before an opening at the 1992 Edinburgh Festival, the ideas had to come fast, by necessity. Somehow it all worked out and it was brought back for two Christmas seasons at Sadler's Wells in 1993 and 1994. The original production had great irreverence, eccentricity and youthful charm.

In taking another look at it, I don’t want to lose that, but I do feel that I have learnt a lot about non-verbal storytelling in the ten years since it was made. I have a wonderful new generation of dancers to work with. Happily, though, we still have five dancers in the current company who appeared in the original production - Scott Ambler, Saranne Curtin, Isabel Mortimer, Etta Murfitt and Emily Piercy - although only Etta and Saranne dance their original roles as Clara and Sugar.

In most classical productions the piece begins at a heavily populated and extremely wealthy Christmas party. Your production begins in a bleak Dickensian Orphanage where the children are experiencing a very different kind of Christmas. Why did you choose to do this? 

I have always felt that the Christmas Party that opens most productions of Nutcracker represented a fantasy in itself for most audiences. Therefore, when we are transported into Clara’s fantasy world we have really just gone from one idyllic fantasy to another. Martin Duncan and I had an instinct that we would feel the transformation that much more if the Christmas Party that begins the piece was less opulent and more bittersweet.

We came up with the notion of an awful Dickensian orphanage, enjoying the annual Christmas Eve visit of the Institute’s Governors. Dr Dross and his wife, who run the Orphanage, contrive to create a pleasant Christmas atmosphere for the benefit of the visitors, only to snatch the Governors' gifts back from the children as soon as they leave and before Christmas day has even begun.

So the basis for the whole story developed out of this grim and fearful place. I should say that as well as having this bittersweet quality it is also very funny and when the orphans eventually revolt and escape from the clutches of Dr Dross you want to cheer them on!

The famous 'Snow flakes' sequence which ends Act one is transformed into a glorious 'Ice-Skating' extravaganza in your staging. What was the inspiration for this? 

There are certain things that every production of Nutcracker should deliver - the growing Christmas Tree, the transformation of the Nutcracker into a young man and the falling of snow during the snowflakes sequence.

Everyone feels a sense of childlike pleasure when snow begins to fall and I wanted to try and capture that sense of pure joy seen through the eyes of the orphan children. So, rather than depict the snowflakes themselves, as in the classical version, I have the orphans skating across a frozen pond as an exhilarating expression of their newfound freedom. The idea, however, came not from Torvill and Dean, much as I love them, but from the 1930s movie star, Sonje Henie. For me she is the perfect image of Princess Sugar.

One of the highlights of the Petipa/Ivanov original is the suite of National Dances that are staged for Clara’s edification in The Land of The Sweets. Is it true that you have created new characters for this sequence?
One of the pleasures of creating these characters was to link them with their orphanage counterparts. In Clara’s imagination her friends become the fluffy Marshmallow girls, the yobby Gobstopper boys, the vain Liquorice Allsort trio and the lewd and sticky Knickerbocker Glory!

Her best friends, the twins, become her heavenly helpers, The Cupids. Dr and Mrs Dross transform into the gluttonous rulers of Sweetieland, King Sherbet and Queen Candy, and their brattish children, Sugar and Fritz, grow up into the glamorous Princess Sugar and saucy Prince Bon Bon. Everything is edible in Sweetieland and its inhabitants are judged not by how they look but by how they taste!

How does the current production differ from the one seen at Sadler's Wells? 

This is very much a new production. It stays pretty close to the 1992 scenario written by Martin Duncan and myself. However, the show has been substantially re-choreographed and Anthony Ward has taken a fresh look at his memorable designs. In fact, our aim has been to take a fresh look at every aspect of the show whilst retaining the innocence and charm of the original production. Ten years on I find Tchaikovsky’s music more and more profound, its magic turns us all into kids again. 

Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker! is on at the Grand Opera House, Belfast from April 29 to May 3.