Diane Parkes discovers why choreographer and director Matthew Bourne has set his latest ballet in the wartime Blitz.
It is Cinderella, but not as we know it. But then it is Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella. And just as he has taken classics such as Carmen, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker and reinvented them, so too his Cinderella is a new take on the fairy tale.
Set during the London Blitz, poor old Cinderella is as busy dodging the German Luftwaffe as she is dealing with the ugly sisters.
But Matthew hopes the essence of the children’s classic comes through his dance.
“I started with the basic story of Cinderella that people already know. I want them to follow the train of events of the fairy tale but also give it a certain complexity. It is fantasy and fairy tale.
“The essential elements are there. The missing shoe, the idea of being lost and then found. I worked in the step mother and the ugly sisters although I went for a larger family to ensure there were enough roles for my dancers.
“There is the element of a kind of prince and of a fairy godmother although mine is a guardian angel. All the elements which give this story its character are there but in a different way.”
In this story Cinderella’s prince is a handsome RAF pilot and, although the two become separated at midnight, the heroine does not disappear in a pumpkin – but in an explosion from a German bomb.
Matthew was very keen that the Second World War be more than just a backdrop to the story, it also generates much of the tale.
“I really love the Prokofiev music to Cinderella because it has such an edge to it and, when I was doing my research into the music, I realised that he wrote it during the Second World War. That made me wonder if that was what gave it its darkness.”
The more Matthew delved into the idea of setting the piece during that conflict, the more it seemed to fit.
“That was a period when there was a real urgency and a need to escape,” he says. “Ideas of time being limited and the risk of losing someone were very much war time themes.
“It is a very easy period to research. There are great movies and there are newsreels which give a less glamorous side to it. My mum and dad were brought up during the Blitz, they were not evacuated, and my granddad was an ARP (air raid precautions) warden. In fact four of the characters in the dance are named after my grandparents.”
The show is shot through with references to some of the great Hollywood war movies. Cinderella’s pilot bears more than a passing reference to David Niven’s airman in the classic A Matter of Life and Death. Matthew based a London Underground scene on the Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor film Waterloo Bridge. And the concluding scene at Paddington station echoes the great romance Brief Encounter.
Placing his characters in the real world also aims to help the audience relate to the story.
“Audiences love characters when they are really good or really awful,” Matthew says. “And when there are no extremes, a character can be harder to play.
“The pilot and Cinderella do not have huge character traits but they win the audience over. I have always liked outside figures and figures that win out in the end. We establish that need in people to follow a story and to root for someone.”
This new Cinderella is a major re-working of a production Matthew created in 1997 but he was keen to start again and create a show which was a large scale piece of dance theatre. It has been created to tour and its large sets can be reduced if necessary for smaller venues.
Premiered at London’s Sadler’s Wells theatre over Christmas, Bourne’s Cinderella has been a runaway success with all tickets sold out weeks before the opening night. Coming so soon after Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Christmas production of Cinderella, does he have any concerns when it comes to the Hippodrome Theatre?
“In Birmingham there is a very small crossover of audience who see BRB and other dance,” he says. “It is interesting that because there have been other theatres which have been put off our Cinderella at this time. We are not performing it in Scotland, for instance, because of Scottish Ballet’s Cinderella. But our research tells us that roughly 40 to 70 per cent of our audiences have never seen a dance before.”
* Cinderella, Birmingham Hippodrome, Feb 15-19, tickets: 0844 338 5000, www.birminghamhippodrome.com