Matthew Bourne: Dance is not “taken as seriously as I thought” | Matthieu bourne

Sir Matthew Bourne, one of Britain’s most successful dance figures, said the government’s response to the pandemic made him realize he did not respect his industry as much as he had imagined.

The choreographer – who is acclaimed for innovative versions of classics such as Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and Romeo and Juliet – said internationally admired independent dance and theater talents have become “forgotten people” during the lockdown.

“I firmly believed that we weren’t taken as seriously as I thought – at least by the government,” Bourne said. “We may not have been appreciated. I thought we were needed more. It took a while for this to happen. He is now focused on proving that dance is “an important and indispensable industry and much loved by our audiences” as UK theaters begin to reopen this month.

A training course hosted by New Adventures.
A training course run by the Bourne New Adventures company, which is now launching Cygnet School. Photography: Alicia Clarke

Bourne’s company, New Adventures, employs a large independent workforce on a contract basis. When the scenes got dark, it was painful to see so many of them out of work for such a long time, the choreographer said.

Apart from the big ballet companies, most of the dancers and choreographers are independent (over 80% according to One Dance UK). It is a precarious existence and while some were eligible for assistance, others fell through the cracks of the self-employment income assistance scheme. The government’s £ 1.57bn emergency support program for the arts was seen to protect institutions rather than a pass-on to the independents who dominate its creative workforce. The government was also criticized last year for suggesting that arts jobs are not “viable” and for running the CyberFirst ad campaign on a ballerina, Fatima, being retrained for a career in technology.

Fourteen months after the theaters initially closed in March 2020, the effects of the lockdown can be seen on all dancers, at different stages of their careers, Bourne said. “There is a big gap in the training of some young people now and in their experiences – like all those who were about to graduate last year. No one can deny that they really missed their last few years. This is true for many young people – they have lost so much. “For more established artists, spending more than a year away from the stage has been detrimental because ‘as a dancer your career is so short – you miss out on golden years that you will never return to.”

Zanna Cornelis (Romanian Princess) and Matthew Ball (the Swan) in Swan Lake by Bourne in Sadler's Wells.
Zanna Cornelis (Romanian Princess) and Matthew Ball (the Swan) in Swan Lake by Bourne in Sadler’s Wells. Photograph: Tristram Kenton / The Guardian

On May 6, New Adventures is launching a new training program, Cygnet School, which will have a base at Marlowe Theater, Canterbury, for the next three years. Supported by the Dorfman Foundation, the program targets young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and has been developed to increase diversity and equity of opportunity in dance. Gains in these areas are generally considered to be at risk in dance and theater as a direct result of the pandemic.

The school is designed to bridge a gap that Bourne had noticed between young people who excel in dance at the grassroots and those who are able to take professional training. “A lot of the kids who came to us for auditions were pretty raw – the talent was there, but they weren’t quite ready to be on a professional show,” he said. New adventures had already established Swan school, which offers classes and workshops to develop new dance skills, but “we were missing people at a younger age”. As the name suggests, Cygnet School will feed the young dancers. Many of these promising young adults are “slipping through the net,” Bourne said, especially if they come from low-income backgrounds. The new school will be part of what he says is a long-term mission to make the industry more diverse.

The first cohort of ten dancers, aged 12 to 24, has already been selected for Cygnet School, selected as part of New Adventures projects in recent years. They will begin their workshop and residency program at the Marlowe in July.

Zizi Strallen (Lana) and Chris Trenfield (Luca) in Car Man, from Bourne, to Sadler's Wells.
Zizi Strallen (Lana) and Chris Trenfield (Luca) in Car Man, from Bourne, to Sadler’s Wells. Photograph: Tristram Kenton / The Guardian

New Adventures, which is one of the national organizations in the Arts Council England portfolio, has not requested additional funding during the pandemic. While its plans for stage productions have been postponed, the company has found new audiences with filmed versions of its shows, captured before the lockdown. The digital boom has widened the reach of dance, Bourne believes. “It has sparked interest in a way that we must not give up now as an industry.”

A major revival of Car manBizet’s exciting version of Bourne was originally scheduled to air in June as part of the 150th anniversary celebrations at the Royal Albert Hall. But since full capacity cannot be guaranteed by then, the venue plans to host production next summer instead. Bourne’s Nutcracker! will open at the Plymouth Theater Royal in November, followed by the company’s traditional Christmas season at Sadler’s Wells in London and a spring tour.

“I’m delighted we’re finally talking about making plans to come back,” Bourne said. His business is brimming with enthusiasm and passion, he added, observing how amazing they had been to maintain their fitness level while stuck at home taking fitness classes. Zoom into their kitchens and living rooms. As UK theaters light up again, he anticipates “an exhilarating time for performers – and for audiences”.

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