NEW YORK — Matthew Bourne was standing in the bedroom of Tchaikovsky’s home outside Moscow two years ago when he decided it was finally time to tackle “Sleeping Beauty.”
“It had a single bed and a very ordinary wooden table, looking out the window at birch trees,” recalls the British choreographer, seated in the plush lobby at City Center in Manhattan, where “Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance,” had its U.S. premiere last month in advance of its run at the Ahmanson Theatre starting Thursday. “There was something so simple about it, and yet this is where all this wonderful music came from.”
“Sleeping Beauty” was a project Bourne had avoided for years, despite the success he had found with Tchaikovsky’s other two ballets, “The Nutcracker” and — especially — “Swan Lake,” which became a global blockbuster after its premiere in 1995.
“This one was hanging over me a little bit for a while,” acknowledges Bourne, 53. His reluctance to complete the trilogy stemmed from what he saw as “Sleeping Beauty’s” tepid love story: A princess, Aurora, pricks her finger on a cursed spinning wheel and falls asleep for a century until her prince awakens her with a kiss.
After extensive research and rejiggering, Bourne settled on a time-traveling version of the tale more to his liking. The saga opens in 1890, resumes in 1911 and concludes in the present day. Bourne’s Aurora is a free spirit with movements borrowed from Isadora Duncan, and her intended, Leo, is a farm boy granted immortality by, of all things, a vampire’s bite. Bourne’s take on “Sleeping Beauty” features slightly menacing fairy godfathers with flowing manes and embellished waistcoats with feathered tails.
With references to Perrault, Stephenie Meyer, Merchant Ivory and Anne Rice, the ballet reflects Bourne’s innately crowd-pleasing sensibility. “I’m thinking of the audience when I’m making work, always. I’m not just pleasing myself,” he says.
“It doesn’t look like anything else Matthew’s done before, but it’s similar in that once again he’s reinvented a classic and, frankly, traditional story and made it his own,” says Doug Baker, producing director of the Center Theatre Group. “Sleeping Beauty” is the eighth Bourne piece to play at the Ahmanson, which has a long-standing relationship with the choreographer dating to “Swan Lake’s” U.S. debut in 1996. (“I feel more at home in L.A. than I do in New York,” Bourne says.)
Bourne was raised in a working-class “household of fans” in the East End of London. His family’s affinities tended toward the mainstream — his father loved Sinatra, his mother Rodgers & Hammerstein — rather than the ballet, but from a young age he was taken to see shows in the West End including, when he was 13, “Gypsy” with Angela Lansbury. “She was the person who made me want to work in the theater,” he says.
After graduating from high school, Bourne took a series of odd, largely thankless jobs but drifted slowly toward a career in the performing arts. Four or five nights a week, he’d attend shows then return home to watch a movie or two, each of which he catalogued using his own ranking system. “I was a little obsessive in those days,” he concedes.
Eventually, he took a job as an usher at the National Theatre in London, where a co-worker suggested he apply to the Laban Dance Centre. He was admitted, despite having had no previous training.
“The thing of putting on a show had always been there with me from age 4,” he says. “Still, to this day I don’t really know why it took so long for me to think that’s something I should do.”
At 22, he was older and less limber than most of his peers, but Bourne doesn’t regret getting a late start on his formal training. “Dance can be very single-minded,” he says. “I came to New York for the first time when I was 18, saw a lot of shows, went to Studio 54, said hello to Andy Warhol, things like that,”
After graduating from Laban, Bourne and a few friends founded a repertory company, Adventures in Motion Pictures, which specialized in witty, pop culture-inspired pastiches, such as the Hitchcockian “Deadly Serious,” at a time when austere modernism reigned in the dance world.
“We found a niche for ourselves as a small company because no one was making anyone laugh in dance,” recalls Bourne, who was content with the company’s rather limited appeal. “I never thought, ‘This is too small, I want it to be bigger.’”
But fate intervened in 1992, when Bourne was commissioned to choreograph a new version of “The Nutcracker” for Opera North in Leeds that he relocated to a Dickensian orphanage. “It was like really, you want me to do ‘The Nutcracker’? It never even occurred to me to do that.”
As unlikely as it might have seemed at the time, Bourne has since become known for subversive takes on cultural classics, including a version of “Cinderella” that takes place during the Blitz, and “The Car Man,” a pulpy spin on “Carmen.”
But nothing has brought him as much acclaim as 1995’s “Swan Lake,” Which he reimagined with men playing all of the swans. Originally staged at Sadler’s Wells, the ballet later moved to the West End, L.A. and Broadway, and has since toured internationally.
Nearly two decades later, Bourne recalls how the show, with its gay themes and allusions to the British royal family, sparked a press flurry: “The day after the premiere, it was on Page 3 of the newspaper, it was on CNN. It was not in an arts program but on the news. Suddenly, it felt bigger than you could have possibly imagined.”
Even when Bourne aims for something more esoteric, such as 2002’s jazz-scored “Play Without Words,” which was conceived as part of an experimental season at Britain’s National Theatre, but became a critical and commercial hit, it seems he can’t help being accessible.
“I think I’m just naturally like that, I naturally want to communicate, I want to give to audiences, I pick my dancers for that reason — to be generous with the audience,” he says. “Also, back home we get public money to do what we do, and there’s something about that. I’ve got to serve the public if I’m getting public money to support my work.”
Bourne’s populist streak continues at home, where he watches “lots of fairly trashy TV” for pleasure. “True Blood” and “Bates Motel” are two current favorites, and he’s also an unapologetic fan of “Strictly Come Dancing,” the British reality show that spawned “Dancing With the Stars.”
“I well up quite a lot when I’m watching that show,” he says. “I think what those shows do extremely well is give people a sense of the real job of dancing.”
Though he’s most frequently described as a choreographer, the term doesn’t adequately convey his multiple roles as writer, director, producer and businessman.
“I sometimes see myself as like a showman,” he says. “I got called the Noël Coward of dance, which I loved. That sums me up quite well, I think. I want to entertain the masses, that’s what I want to do.”
As for what’s next, Bourne isn’t quite sure. “It’s harder to find the pieces because I’ve done a lot of the ones I wanted to do.”
At the moment, he’s toying with a “Gangs of New York"-inspired steampunk piece, and has done preliminary research into a possible adaptation of “The Red Shoes,” the 1948 film based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale.
But, Bourne adds, “I wish there were more Tchaikovskys.”