Matthew Bourne's individual approach to dance theatre has won a huge following across the country. He talks to Terry Grimley about the revival of his early take on a Tchaikovsky favourite.
One of my best theatrical moments of 2007 came at the performance of New Adventures' The Car Man at Birmingham Hippodrome.
I'm not referring to the show itself - though there was nothing wrong with that - but the buzzing sense of anticipation in the packed auditorium before it began. Looking around, it was impossible to sum up who the company's followers were, because it really looked like a cross-section of the Birmingham public - young and old, smart and casual.
It struck me then that Matthew Bourne's company really has built steadily in recent years to become a true theatrical phenomenon.
"I often wish the dance writers in London could come out on tours and see the reaction of audiences," says Bourne. "The mix of people - it's something people don't really know about and it doesn't get discussed.
"It's not just the numbers but the sorts of people who come. It's such a cross-section, it's wonderful. It doesn't alienate older members of the audience, but it attracts younger people - teenagers, even, who are very hard to get into the theatre."
He adds: "It's purely to do with plugging away, bringing shows back. It really does work - I've seen it work over the years. Every time we come back there are new people or people coming back to see shows they never saw the first time."
Bourne's choreography will have an extended exposure on the Hippodrome stage when Mary Poppins is in residence from July to September, but meanwhile he returns with New Adventures next month with his individual take on a show familiar to Hippodrome audiences, Nutcracker!
This is an example of his revived back-catalogue, having first been staged as long ago as 1992, in the days of Bourne's original company, Adventures in Motion Pictures.
"I was actually commissioned to do it by Opera North, because they wanted to recreate the programme in which it was originally performed, with a one-act opera called Yolande.
"It was an odd thing to be asked to do at the time, because we were six dancers touring around in a minibus. We were a tiny company but we had a bit of a reputation for doing quirky productions that were quite entertaining, something out of the ordinary.
"It would never have crossed my mind to do Nutcracker because it's such a big ballet, and initially I was shocked. But they gave us all the resources to do it. We went up to about 22 dancers or something, had a big orchestra and all the things we had never had before.
"They didn't want a classical version because there are a lot of those around. They were actively asking me to do something different, so it was a chance to look at it and ask what were the important elements."
One of the things that struck him was that the big Victorian Christmas party which launches the ballet was already a fantasy, so that the transition to the fantasy Land of Sweets did not seem such a big leap.
"We decided to accentuate the contrast by setting it in a grim Dickensian orphanage where all the orphans are treated badly. Christmas doesn't amount to much - second-hand toys with bits missing, a few balloons and a twig of a Christmas tree.
"We thought that would make the the journey into fantasy much more powerful. When the Christmas tree grows it breaks down the walls of the orphanage and the children escape."
There is also an ice-skating sequence - very popular at the moment with the success of Dancing on Ice on TV - and a nod to The Wizard of Oz with monochrome giving way to Technicolor when the action arrives in the Land of Sweets.
One thing which hasn't been changed, though, is the music.
"It's Tchaikovsky, the full score. It's not Tchaikovsky-lite or messed around. You can't mess with Tchaikovsky because he wrote it to tell a story and you don't need to re-order it or do anything. It's very cleverly structured."
I point out to Bourne that the Wikepedia entry on Nutcracker! mentions that it introduces a sexual element, "which not everyone welcomed".
"I think that was written by an American," he says. "This piece was a massive family hit in this country and no-one has ever complained about it. When we went to California, and especially Orange County, it was not what people expected.
"There's an element in the Land of Sweets where people are judged by how they taste, and there's a lot of tasting of each other which for adults has a sexual connotation but for children it's just silly and funny. They are very protective and odd out there.
"We had just come on the back of a very successful season at Sadler's Wells and I think we are a very different culture in that respect.
"The point of Nutcracker! for us was to make it work for all members of the family, not just mothers and daughters. A lot of audiences at our evening performances are all adults."
Birmingham audiences are likely to have a very clear idea of the piece from Sir Peter Wright's classic version, which has become an institution at the Hippodrome over the last 20 year.
"I think of the classical versions Peter Wright does the best ones. He's done several. He understands Nutcracker completely and his versions are the best. I'm not anti-ballet, but ours, I would say, would appeal to young kids in a different way.
"Nutcracker is always going to be a winner because the music is so amazing. It's an introduction to the thrill of live theatre for a lot of young people."
It is also a classic inspiration for choreographers. Bourne points out, for instance, that the topiary dance in his Edward Scissorhands was inspired by the snowflakes in Nutcracker.
Since fashionable companies are usually associated with new work, it is surprising to realise that Edward Scissorhands is still Bourne's most recent show. He points out that his policy of remounting old successes makes it hard to find time to create new work. To give an idea of how busy he has been he points out that last year he had three premieres - Swan Lake in Paris, Edward Scissorhands in San Francisco and Mary Poppins on Broadway - on three consecutive nights.
"I'm working on a new show but I'm not allowed to say what it is, because it's for the Edinburgh Festival and and we've been told we mustn't say anything about it until April 2."
In putting together companies for new shows and revivals, does he find that dancers have changed since he first started Adventures in Motion Pictures?
"In the early days people came and didn't really know what they were auditioning for. Now it's the ambition of a lot of young dancers to be in this company - it's the reason they got into dancing "That's been a great thing that's happened. We find we've got a lot more people coming from musical theatre colleges which train them in theatre and dance. The dance training in those colleges has gone way up so they can compare with ballet dancers and contemporary dancers, so the company is made up from a mixture."
* New Adventures presents Nutcracker! at Birmingham Hippodrome from March 25-29. Mary Poppins is there from July 10 to September 27 (Box office: 0870 730 1234).