Interview: Matthew Bourne Gives a Heart-to-Heart On His Latest Re-Imagining of ROMEO + JULIET & Other Creative Projects

Matthew Bourne’s Romeo + Juliet will have its North American Premiere at the Ahmanson on January 31st.

By: Jan. 28, 2024
Interview: Matthew Bourne Gives a Heart-to-Heart On His Latest Re-Imagining of ROMEO + JULIET & Other Creative Projects

Interview: Matthew Bourne Gives a Heart-to-Heart On His Latest Re-Imagining of ROMEO + JULIET & Other Creative Projects

Matthew Bourne’s Romeo + Juliet will have its North American Premiere at the Ahmanson January 31, 2024 (with previews starting January 28th). Matthew directs and choreographs his cast of 27 New Adventures dancers. Matthew managed to answer a few of my queries on the phone amidst the background of police sirens blaring.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Matthew! The last time I interviewed you was when you brought The Car Man to the Ahmanson in 2001 and I was working for Genre magazine.

That's a long time ago. It was a momentous time for us all.

So now after 20+ years and numerous new New Adventures productions, you’re bringing your Romeo + Juliet to the Ahmanson. Is this the same touring cast that began October 31, 2023 at the Aberdeen, His Majesty's Theatre?

It's some of the same and some different. We first did the show in 2019. And then, we revived it last year, but sort of slightly delayed because of COVID. It was so an unexpected success. It was a project that involved young people around the country around the UK joining us for each production that we did in each city. It was all about young talent and developing young talents. So, it was a talent development project.

The show itself was a surprise, a surprise to me how successful it was and how it came together. So, we decided then last year to bring it into our normal rep and cast it with our regular dancers. Many of the people who created the show are still with it.

Has your choreography changed any since its 2019 premiere?

A little. I keep working on a show. I'm always having another look at things. I'm always looking to how to make something better.

Your choreography is never set in stone then?

Even this week, I've changed things. It keeps it alive because a lot of the tours we do are very long, and we do a lot of performances. I like to keep it alive and a living thing for the company as well.

Interview: Matthew Bourne Gives a Heart-to-Heart On His Latest Re-Imagining of ROMEO + JULIET & Other Creative Projects I must have seen Play Without Words six or seven times in which you triple cast each role and had your dancers simultaneously dance their respective roles. In the program for Romeo + Juliett, I see multiple names listed under the main characters, as well as covers for many other roles. Is Romeo + Juliet also tripled cast? Or are you alternating dancers in different roles?

It's triple cast in a different way, as you probably guessed. There are three people who dance the roles as they do a lot of multitasking in the show. Each person who's in the company probably does two or three tracks in the show. Each cast an audience sees is a different mix of people. You don't see three Romeo's at once or three Juliet at once like Play Without Words. There's only one at any given performance.

Are each of your 27-member cast required to learn multiple roles of the 24 characters??

Yes, everyone does more than one role. It keeps it very fresh. Each line-up serves a little different. Audiences who like to come more than once, they get a different cast. It's worked for us very well.

What pre-show warm-up routines are your cast required to do?

Because it's a dance company, as well as a show, they do full classes. They do an hour's dance class. Prior to that, they will do their own warm-ups. This is quite a heavy schedule because they have to keep their technique up. It's a heavy show Romeo +Juliet, as well as a lot of full-out dancing, very powerful dancing, lifting. Everyone needs to keep an eye on their technique and keep their strength and their stamina up for a long tour. They do a lot. It's a very, very busy regime that they have - lots of rehearsals, partner swaps.

Interview: Matthew Bourne Gives a Heart-to-Heart On His Latest Re-Imagining of ROMEO + JULIET & Other Creative Projects Is one of the reasons you alternate dancers in the roles due to stamina and endurance?

Not really, it's more to do with the fact that we dancers are prone to injury.

And then we had a whole period with COVID and people being off. What we like to do is make sure that we never cancel a show. So even at the last minute, if someone is off or someone gets injured, we just move the casting around. So, the audience always gets a great show. And there's no real sense of covers, actually. Everyone is up and running in those roles and should be excellent. We always give people an excellent show. That's why we have so many people doing the roles, gives us more options. But if they are heavy roles and emotionally heavy roles, the Romeo and Juliet roles in particular, it's good to keep it fresh. You don't do every single show otherwise, I think it's quite hard to recreate the emotional impact of it. That's the other reason why we do it, the emotional impact of it.

You were one of the first choreographers to emphasize acting with dance abilities in your choreography. What do you look for when auditioning dancers?

Well, it's interesting you say that because that's not something often the dancer was trained to do - acting. It depends where their training has been. Some people would come through musical theater training have obviously done acting as well. But if it's a classical training or contemporary training, then often it's not touched on enough, really. I look for people who are very generous with their approach to performing, who want to connect with an audience. That for me is the beginning of acting, they want to tell a story. They're keen. I find over the years because the work I do has become more familiar, I attract the young people who want to do that kind of performance. They like the idea of acting and dancing, they want to tell a story. In a way, it's gotten easier to cast the shows because people know what the work is. They know what they're getting into. They want to learn, and they learn on the job quite often. They do multiple roles, so they get a chance to do different characters and they do a lot of performances. Our cast tends to be a mixture of brand-new talent and people have been there for some time. Some of my company members have been with me for 5, 10, 15, 20 years. So they learn from those people. They learn alongside those whose particular skills that are needed. It's one of the things that we nurture in the company - people's acting skills, as you say, and it's very important to the work.

Interview: Matthew Bourne Gives a Heart-to-Heart On His Latest Re-Imagining of ROMEO + JULIET & Other Creative Projects Do you hold periodic auditions to join your company?

We do annual auditions every year. We feel that it's important that people have the chance to be seen. And it's a good practice. I think, even if we didn't need very many new company members, we always do the auditions, big auditions because I think people want it. They should have that opportunity to be seen. It's very good for us as well because we do sometimes spot some amazing talent. So every year.

You created your first dance company Adventures in Motion Pictures in 1987. Then in 2002 you launched (with your co-director Robert Noble) New Adventures. Was there a necessity to rebrand?

It's a bit of a long story. I had a different producing partner when we first made Swan Lake. It took us all a bit by surprise. We were suddenly in the big time, performing in the West End and on Broadway and being offered international touring dates. It was a little bit I might say out of our depths maybe to begin with. Although a lot of great people around helped us, like Cameron Mackintosh helped to bring the show to Broadway. I think some mistakes were made along the way. It became necessary to rebrand and start the company afresh with the knowledge of knowing what the company now was. I'm not particularly blaming anyone, but I think I felt it myself. We were suddenly in the deep end, doing eight shows a week. Dancers had never done that before. We didn't have enough people in the company to cover that. We've learned how to do what we do now since. But at the time… it was great. It was wonderful. We had all this attention and we had wonderful audience reactions and everything. But the struggle to get the show on every day was a brand-new thing that we had to learn how to do. It was needed for financial reasons, or I suppose the reasons to rebrand – to start afresh. I renamed the company New Adventures with a nod to the previous name.

Interview: Matthew Bourne Gives a Heart-to-Heart On His Latest Re-Imagining of ROMEO + JULIET & Other Creative Projects And it's been Robert Noble, of course. He’s has been a brilliant partner for me. He’s also a managing director of Cameron Mackintosh’s company as well. He comes with all that commercial knowledge of international touring and West End productions. He has a very strong idea of something that the dance world doesn't normally have, actually, which is why our touring is so successful. He's a genius at making these tours work financially. Obviously, it comes down to that eventually.  You have to make it work somehow and we've built up our audience over the years. They trust me. We go back again and again, and we can still do these pictures. It's incredible! A lot of companies struggle to do that.

Terry Davies composed the gorgeous jazz score of Play Without Words, as well as many of your other productions, and is orchestrating his music to your Romeo + Juliet. What cosmic forces first brought you and Terry together to collaborate?

Well, I think he was suggested to me by another composer when we needed to do the arrangements for The Car Man. That's how we first got together. Terry's a guy who loves composing in his own right. He also is very lacking in ego. He was happy to work with other composers’ work as well, Edward Scissorhands is a combination of Danny Elfman and Terry’s work. Terry has written new scores for me. My most recent piece called The Midnight Bell, he wrote the whole new score for that a couple of years ago.

For Romeo + Juliet, it's a brand-new arrangement of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. It's not a reduction of the score. It's a new arrangement. It's something that is uniquely ours, uniquely our version of the piece. It's great. It doesn't follow the big, lush score like it is in the ballet. It's much more visceral and earthy and suits our production a lot more.

Sounds wonderful.

It's really great.

Interview: Matthew Bourne Gives a Heart-to-Heart On His Latest Re-Imagining of ROMEO + JULIET & Other Creative Projects How do you two usually work? Terry’s music first? Or your choreography?

If it's a new score, you mean, Yeah, a bit of both. Sometimes he will offer me something. We talk through the ideas first for the scenes, and what we want. Sometimes he will offer me something unexpected, I wasn't really expecting that, and it gives a whole sort of different tone to a section of the show. I like to let people do what they do, to give freedom, not to be too dictatorial about something. I love being offered something that surprises me as well.

Sometimes it's the music that comes first. Sometimes we staged a scene, do some choreography for a duet or something and I’ll get Terry, ‘Look at it.’ and I say, ‘This the feel,’ and then he'll write the music. It varies.

As a former Center Theatre Group’s associate artist, will you be bringing your latest The Midnight Bell or the 30th Anniversary production of Nutcracker! to Los Angeles soon?

Well, obviously we'd love to bring everything to L.A. That’s my second home really. We're thrilled to be bringing Romeo + Juliet because it’s a new piece. It's the American premiere.

Hopefully that will continue. As our relationship continues to develop under several artistic directors now. We seem to continue this lovely relationship that we have.

It's the only venue we're doing in the States this time. Unfortunately, we couldn't get New York or Washington to come in on this one. More due to conflicts of scheduling really than anything else. But we're certainly talking to City Center and Kennedy Center and other places, about future collaborations as well. So we will be back. Hopefully with the new things I do.

Are you still a Center Theatre Group associate artist?

I believe I am. It’s one of those things that I’m not really sure. I think I am. I’m certainly proud to be.

What was your initial reaction to being informed you were to be knighted in the Queen’s New Year honors in 2016?

Well, I don't know. I think I laughed actually. I thought,’ How crazy is that?’ I kind of loved it. I love it all, I have to be honest. I just thought, ‘How amazing!  How wonderful!’

Interview: Matthew Bourne Gives a Heart-to-Heart On His Latest Re-Imagining of ROMEO + JULIET & Other Creative Projects I grew up, I was a famous autograph collector when I was a kid. I did it many, many days of the week I was in central London opening nights or hotels, wherever. I love to elaborate in my teen years, always loved the idea of when the Honors List came out to see who was going to be Sirred or Damed or whatever.

It’s happening to me just seems such a swell, actually.

It doesn't offer you any perks. You don't get the stuff. It doesn't come with anything other than just possibly making you a bit more of a spokesperson for your industry. I feel my opinion is asked for more sometimes. You’re asked to be involved with a lot of organizations as a patron and that kind of thing. It gives you a certain amount of cachet.

But didn’t you get a nice piece of jewelry to wear?

You get a little metal, but you wouldn't wear it anywhere. That would be a bit pretentious. I don’t think I could do that. But it’s fun, and it's a lovely thing. I think a lot of people talk against the honor system, but it's like your country saying thank you in a way, so I think it's a nice thing. I think it does offer the chance to offer honors to people who are often unseen as well, not myself but people who worked for years doing some great jobs somewhere, doctors, nurses, whatever; they may be getting a thrill. I think it's a good system.

After all your experience on the West End stages, what was your first impression of Broadway when you brought over your Swan Lake in 1998?

Well, I found it was obviously thrilling, very exciting, and Cameron knew what to do. He gave me a little gift on the opening night because he knew I was a big fan of movie musicals and Julie Andrews in particular. He invited her for opening night.

As soon as she got out of the car, which I wasn't expecting, on opening night, I couldn't care less about anything else. I was so nervous but then, ‘Julie Andrews came to my opening night and that was it!’ That was as much as I could ask for. That was wonderful. But I did also find it quite hard work as the season went on. I was there for quite a while.

I found it quite… I can’t find the word, hard to maintain a show in the Broadway community I didn't feel part of it particularly. I found it a bit judgmental and a bit difficult to enjoy it as much as I would have liked. Whereas was in L.A., I've always feel because it's not a theater town as such, the audiences and the people who come tend to work in the film industry. I find them to be a little bit more open. I always felt a little more comfortable in L.A., a bit more welcomed generally.

Interview: Matthew Bourne Gives a Heart-to-Heart On His Latest Re-Imagining of ROMEO + JULIET & Other Creative Projects How would you compare West End to Broadway then?

I have mixed feelings about Broadway when I went. It was incredible in many ways but also kind of tough. Weirdly didn’t feel particularly welcomed.

New York is New York and it’s the pinnacle. And an absolute thrill to perform on Broadway, and it was for the whole cast of course, It's interesting. Andrew Lloyd Webber made a comment recently about how it's so difficult to produce a show on Broadway now. It's more of a vanity project than anything. Is it possible to make money anymore as a producer? I don't know. It takes so long for a show to re-coup, and I think in a way that is an unhealthy atmosphere. You want more opportunities for new work and for work to be not have that pressure put on it.

I think there are a lot of opportunities in London with small, subsidized theatres. You do get that in New York as well. I think that's where the new work comes from. There's a fear of producing new work or even anything actually, for that matter. Financially that becomes very burdensome, difficult. I think that's an uncomfortable thing that's happened at the moment. We need to be able to have the opportunities to see and develop a new talent.

You’ve taken classic stories (Cinderella, The Red shoes, the deservedly lauded Swan Lake) and added your Matthew Bourne touch to them. Is there an old movie or book you would love to give your creative spin to?

I'm always looking for those things. I'm always looking for the next book or the next film to adapt. When you think of wordless storytelling, which is where I do  the shows I do, it’s a particular thing not easy to find. I have asked people if you've got any ideas of pieces you'd think would make a good dance theater piece? You know? I don't have one particular at the moment, no.

I always think about Rebecca, but there's not enough characters in it to tell a big story. But I love that film. I've done so many that I wanted to do, The Red Shoes I did, and I always wanted to do that. A lot of the shows that I've done as I've ticked them off, struggling now to find new ones.

Interview: Matthew Bourne Gives a Heart-to-Heart On His Latest Re-Imagining of ROMEO + JULIET & Other Creative Projects Any plans to revisit any of your past shows?

Always. They’re on a rotation of revivals. We do have an annual Christmas season as well. In London for eight weeks, we have a rotation of shows now that they come back every 6, 7, 8 years, and they find a new audience. It's wonderful as Edward Scissorhands at the moment is touring in the UK.

Swan Lake is coming back later this year. It's already been announced. Comes back for a big London season, UK tour, big international tour next year.  They tend to get more popular, the more you do them, Oddly, I mean when we revived Swan Lake in 2000 at the Dominion Theatre in London, I remember we had on it this tagline, ’Last time ever in London.’ We really believe that this was the last run of it. We were gonna give it one more go and hadn't quite realized that the more you do a show, the more people learn about it. The more people that want to come and see it. Then when you bring it back, people who did see it want to bring their friends or they want to see it again and you become more popular the more times you do that. Interesting.

What in the near future for Matthew Bourne?

The near future… Well, I've just done a show called Sondheim’s Old Friends in the West End. I directed that with Bernadette Peters and Lea Salonga and a fabulous cast. A lot of American theatre people came to see it, so I'm hoping that we might be able to bring the show to New York and Los Angeles possibly. We’re hoping. It's not something that's definite yet. But I'd love to share with American audiences that show because it was an absolute dream to work with those people. That may happen. I'm also working on, I probably can't say what it is. I'm working on another show for Cameron for the summer of next year. Also directing. I'm even directing a few musical theater things of late.

I’ve done musical theatre before, but never as the director really. I've been co-director or the choreographer for Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady and things like that.

But Cameron and I are cooking up various ideas and we seem to work together very well at the moment. So, a lot alongside my company is keeping me ridiculously busy at the moment. I thought I'd be sort of winding down now, Gil I do more than ever actually, get busier than ever.

Interview: Matthew Bourne Gives a Heart-to-Heart On His Latest Re-Imagining of ROMEO + JULIET & Other Creative Projects How do you juggle your outside directorial duties with your responsibilities to New Adventure?

Well, I'm learning to divide my time a bit better. I used to be very much more hands-on with my own company in terms of being there all the time and watching all the shows. I have to divide my time up and go from one to another and try and be as effective as possible when I'm there. I think that's the important thing. And it's working quite well at the moment. I feel I can do it. I feel I can divide my time. Sometimes it takes a day or two to work your way back into a new show when you've been working on another one. You need to get your head back into the world of that show. Yeah, I can do it for a while anyway. And we don’t want to do it like this busy forever, but at the moment, it's fine.

How are rehearsals going?

Our rehearsals are going great. We've had a good time here because we've  had a few days with the  jetlag and everything. We've been working through. We have to get three casts on, so it takes a little bit longer than normal. We got another run-through this evening. And the first show on Sunday night, tomorrow night, with the dance community angle on it. There are people of the ballet dance community events attached to it.

We open next Wednesday, officially.

It's very exciting. I'm so excited to see how the L.A. audience take to the show. It's quite different from some of my other shows. It's very moving but It's also very raw and very hard to watch at times. It's about the problems that young people face today, and it's maybe a little unexpected for me. It's not all magical and fairy tales and things, it's actually a reality. But it's also about the thing I think everyone loves about the show is I've tried to capture that real feeling of young love when you first fall in love with someone and it's not about a little peck on the cheek. You're getting the young people going for it. We've created what we think is the longest kissing dance in history. They just kiss, kiss, kiss, and dancing at the same time. Their mouths locked together is something I feel the audience smile because they remember those times that first time when you can't keep your hands off someone you know. I think that's  what I tried to capture in this piece.

I look forward to seeing that kiss.

Well, thank you, Matthew. This has been great. You’re wonderful like you were 20 years ago.

It’s good to talk again after all this time.

Maybe I’ll interview you again in another twenty years.

Well, fingers crossed that we’re both still doing it.

Break a leg, Matthew!

Thank you so much!

For tickets to the live performances of Matthew Bourne’s Romeo + Juliet through February 25, 2024; click on the button below: