Luckily for Charlotte, Matthew Bourne never got fond of the sound of his own voice.
If he had, the career in theater for which fandom and experience prepared him might have kept him busy and invisible to U.S. audiences.
But he realized in the late ’70s that he’d rather communicate with his feet – and, more importantly, through other people’s. That why his updated “Cinderella” reaches Belk Theater Jan. 6 in the Broadway Lights touring series.
It follows last fall’s lustrous “The Red Shoes” and his daring “Sleeping Beauty” five years ago. It continues a unique relationship with Charlotte: Like the others, it will play only a handful of U.S. cities, of which we’re the smallest. (“Cinderella” opens here and goes to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.)
“I grew up loving theater and movies and knew I wanted to be part of that world,” says Bourne, now Sir Matthew after knighthood in 2016 for services to dance. “I saw a lot of great musicals growing up in London and thought I wanted to be an actor. But when I reached puberty, I didn’t like using my voice very much. I found dance was where I could express myself more readily.
“One of the things that keeps me in touch with wider audiences is that love of movies. I connect with more people than (are usually found in) a dance audience. Coming to dance quite late, training-wise, helped me. If I had started as a dancer at a young age, my subject matter now would just be dance.”
Instead, he specializes in wordless, hyper-emotional reimaginings of classic stories, where performers must be adept actors. America discovered Bourne when the so-called “all-male ‘Swan Lake’ ” premiered at the Ahmanson, then won him 1999 Tony Awards as choreographer and director of a musical. (“I remind people the cast is one-third female, but they remember the male swan and the prince,” he says.)
He followed that with retellings of the movie “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” named “The Car Man” and using music from Bizet’s opera “Carmen;” “Edward Scissorhands,” set to Danny Elfman’s score; a Sleeping Beauty with dark hues; and “The Red Shoes,” from the movie about a ballerina who’s forced to choose between dancing and love and kills herself.
He first set “Cinderella” 21 years ago, putting it in London during the Blitz of 1940.
His grandparents’ reminiscences prompted that decision, and he repaid them by naming characters Mabel, Monty, Wilfred and Flora. Here an RAF pilot gets separated from a fetching stranger by bombs, and he discovers her shoe in the rubble. Bourne employs Prokofiev’s score, written in 1945 for the fairytale version.
“I tend to use simple, much-loved pieces ripe for reinterpretation. It’s useful in a nonverbal medium for the audience to have some idea of the story: the shoe going missing and being fitted, the stepmother, the ugly sisters. We create versions using the bare bones of something that’s already there. So I don’t yearn to tell stories (I’ve invented), because I feel I have.”
‘I know what I like now’
He once divided time between ballet and traditional musicals: He won an Olivier Award (the U.K.’s Tony) for choreographing “Mary Poppins” in 2005 and was nominated for “Oliver!” in 2010. Now he sticks to dance projects.
“Having a company is a rare and privileged thing. Making your own decisions is so precious that I never want to let that go, and I love developing new talent. You have a period in your life when you’re more ambitious. People send you scripts, you get flattered and your head is turned. But I know what I like now.”
He likes Charlotte and Blumenthal Performing Arts president Tom Gabbard, and the feeling is mutual. Bourne likens Gabbard to Gordon Davidson, who first booked “Swan Lake” at the Ahmanson: “He was a visionary director willing to sell more than the biggest hits.
“Our history in Charlotte is one of winning audiences over. We (want) to use Charlotte as an example of how this can work in (similar) cities, because we’d like our U.S. tours to be a lot bigger. We’re just about scraping by on this one – we won’t make money and may lose some – but we’re loyal to our partners.”
Gabbard returns that loyalty.
He met Bourne through show business colleagues and realized “his audiences were younger and more diverse than what we usually see in the U.S. In an era of declining attendance for mainstream arts groups, he’s showing the way by reinventing classic... with a fresh, modern sensibility.
“He is a rock star in the U.K. and Asia, and our hope has been to see his unique style of narrative dance receive (that) kind of loyal following in the U.S. For most, this is their first experience with a narrative that doesn’t have dialogue. It takes a little time for people to unlock their imaginations to a story told without words.”
At 58, Bourne isn’t sure how many more evening-long productions he has in him. He ponders a revised “Coppelia.” He might experiment with shorter pieces, the kind he made 30 years ago, perhaps setting a suite of songs by Ella Fitzgerald (his favorite singer.) Right now, he’s forging another revamped full-length ballet in “Romeo and Juliet.”
“Prokofiev’s estate gave us permission to reorchestrate it for 15 musicians, which gives it a more intimate feel than the big classical version. It will be set slightly in the future, when love is forbidden or excessive emotion is considered unhealthy. The kids live in an institution, though I’m not sure why they’re there. We start rehearsals in March, and a lot of it’s still bubbling in my head.”
Hasn’t he already booked a tour starting in May?
“Yes, and it’s scary when people buy tickets for something you haven’t done yet. That’s when you really have to live up to the job!”
Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella
WHEN: Jan. 6 at 1:30 and 7 p.m., Jan. 8-10 at 7:30 p.m., Jan. 11 at 8 p.m., Jan. 12 at 2 and 8 p.m. Bourne will discuss his work Jan. 4 at 6 p.m. in Booth Playhouse, in a public event moderated by Charlotte Ballet artistic director Hope Muir.
WHERE: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.
TICKETS: $25-$104.50. Also $25 for student rush less than two hours before curtain.
DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.