Here's how Matthew Bourne's choreography lights up the West End
The UK’s roster of acclaimed choreographers boasts world-class talent. Arlene Phillips, Christopher Wheeldon and Kate Prince are just a few award-winning dance creators whose works regularly light up the West End. But there’s no innovative choreographer quite like Matthew Bourne.
In a packed career, Bourne’s standout works include Swan Lake, The Red Shoes and Nutcracker!. He doesn’t just work on dance shows though; he’s choreographed West End musicals like Mary Poppins and Oliver!. It’s no surprise then that Bourne is a six-time Olivier-winning choreographer. He was also knighted for services to dance in 2016: a high honour indeed.
Many of Matthew Bourne’s works are performed by his company, New Adventures. Take a look back at Matthew Bourne’s career from his earliest works through to the present day.
Bourne’s debut piece Spitfire used dance to explore a slightly taboo topic: men’s underwear advertising. Spitfire adapted a traditional pas de quatre — a ballet performed by four people — as a competitive dance drama which commented on male vanity and beauty ideals. Spitfire was last staged for live audiences in 2012, however six dancers in the New Adventures company performed a socially distanced version in 2021 as part of a pandemic dance festival.
1991: Children of Eden
Bourne felt “the Spark of Creation” when choreographing Children of Eden in the West End. Even though the Biblical musical only ran for three months, his exquisite dance routines delighted London audiences. The Children of Eden cast included Ken Page, Ruthie Henshall and Frances Ruffelle.
A few years after Spitfire, Bourne choreographed a fresh version of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker for Opera North. Little did Bourne know that Nutcracker! would change his position in the dance world. Not only did it mark his first full-evening story ballet, he only had six dancers and five weeks to create it – evidence of his trademark ingenuity.
After performances at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1992, Nutcracker! transferred to Sadler’s Wells for Christmas seasons in 1993 and 1994. It is now a well-known piece in Bourne’s New Adventures repertoire, last seen at Sadler’s Wells in 2021.
Sam Mendes and Bourne formed a crack creative team for the 1994 revival of musical Oliver!. The Olivier-nominated production ran for over four years at the London Palladium. During its West End residency, the cast featured Jonathan Pryce, Robert Lindsay and Tamzin Outhwaite.
1995: Swan Lake
The original Swan Lake sees Princess Odette turn into a swan and eventually fall for a prince. But in 1995, Bourne transformed the story to focus on queer love by making the leads male. Swan Lake won Best New Dance Production at the Olivier Awards and made a star out of Adam Cooper, who played The Swan. Since those London performances of Swan Lake, the production has toured internationally, with millions now able to watch the ballet worldwide.
A fairy tale story in the midst of war may not sound like it would work at first, but everything Bourne choreographs is golden. In 1997, he adapted the Prokofiev ballet with a World War Two theme for a 1940s Britain-inspired show. There are plenty of the Cinderella tropes here, like the ugly sisters, Prince Charming and a glass slipper. But it’s far more Blitz than Ball.
2000: The Car Man
At the turn of the millennium, Bourne adapted George Bizet’s Carmen into a thrilling dance production. Instead of the story being in Spain, The Car Man is set in a 1960s diner. Over 65 dancers and musicians star in The Car Man London performances.
2001: My Fair Lady
In 2001, Bourne made his National Theatre debut choreographing for Trevor Nunn’s lavish West End revival of My Fair Lady, ensuring that its heroine really could have danced all night. During its run, My Fair Lady won five Oliviers including Outstanding Musical Production, a Best Actress for its Eliza (Martine McCutcheon) and of course a choreography award for Bourne.
2001: South Pacific
Later that year, Bourne choreographed South Pacific at the National Theatre. The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical played for four months in the Olivier space, the theatre’s largest venue.
2002: Play Without Words
In 2002, Matthew Bourne returned to the National Theatre with Play With Words. The original dance production, set in 1960s Chelsea, was inspired by films that explored the class dynamics in England, such as The Servant. The brooding, psychologically complex Play With Words won two Oliviers: Best Entertainment and Best Theatre Choreographer (for Bourne).
2004: Mary Poppins
Mary Poppins marked Bourne’s first time choreographing a Disney musical. He got to put his stamp on iconic Disney songs such as “Step in Time” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” alongside Stephen Mear. Mary Poppins saw the pair win an Olivier choreography award. They later made history once more, winning the 2021 Olivier choreography award for the same show.
2005: Edward Scissorhands
Following the success of Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, Matthew Bourne later adapted the story in ballet form. The striking dance show premiered in Plymouth ahead of a Christmas season at Sadler’s Wells and then a UK tour. It’s fair to say the whole country wanted to cut in line for first tickets.
2008: Dorian Gray
After working on traditional ballet stories, Bourne’s next step was adapting literary works for the stage. In 2008, New Adventures performed Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, newly set in a British “it” world. The ballet explored the image-obsessed realm of arts and politics, but came to life through dance. When Dorian Gray premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival, it became their most successful dance production of all time.
2011: Lord of the Flies
If you loved William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, you’ll be just as gripped by Bourne’s stage version. The production follows a similar storyline: a group of stranded boys must make their own civilisation, but conflict soon ensues. Putting the show on was difficult: it featured 15 young men who had never danced before, and the subsequent tour added local cast members at each stop. But Bourne has always been committed to encouraging new talent.
2012: Sleeping Beauty
Bourne has been been one to turn down the chance to choreograph a Tchaikovsky ballet. In 2012, he adapted and directed Sleeping Beauty, a wondrous show which became the fastest-selling production in New Adventures history. The traditional story was transported to a gothic Edwardian era, and both audiences and critics loved it: this is a multi-award-winning production.
2016: The Red Shoes
Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes took over Hollywood in the late 1940s. Nearly 70 years later, Bourne transformed the Oscar-winning story and brought that Golden Era of Hollywood to the stage. Coincidentally, The Red Shoes is set in the world of a touring ballet company and is about dancers — life imitates art.
2019: Romeo and Juliet
Shakespeare’s love story is told in a new light with Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet. The Prokofiev ballet is now a gripping New Adventures production, and Shakespeare’s love story feels youthful once more. Romeo and Juliet featured new dance members who auditioned to be part of the company for the production, with Bourne yet again innovating the world of dance through both his choreography and his championing of fresh talent.
Originally published on