Audiences have been enjoying Sir Matthew Bourne’s iconic versions of classic ballets for 30 years now. In 2022 he is revisiting Nutcracker!, the show that launched his stellar career as a choreographer. What’s On recently caught up with him to find out more...

Choreographer Sir Matthew Bourne has become world-renowned for his reinventions of classical ballets, including Swan Lake, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. And it was a commission to create a new version of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker 30 years ago which was his first foray into the field of re-working popular shows.
Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker! returns to Birmingham Hippodrome this February - and Matthew says he has a great deal to thank the show for.

“Nutcracker! was a commission from Opera North,” he recalls. “They wanted to recreate the double bill in which Nutcracker was originally premiered with a Tchaikovsky opera called Iolanta. This was to celebrate the centenary of that double bill. They thought there were a lot of classical versions of the ballet already around, so they wanted something a bit different.

“I’ve done so many versions of classical ballets since, but at that time I was running a very small contemporary dance company - six dancers, and I was one of the dancers. So a large-scale Nutcracker wouldn’t be the sort of thing you would think to do.

“The commission came out of the blue, and I quickly thought, ‘What a wonderful idea’. I was able to expand the company and work with a full orchestra. It was an amazing experience.”

The double bill premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 1992 and marked a milestone in Matthew’s career.
“I don’t think we would be here now if it wasn’t for that Nutcracker. Swan Lake followed about three years later as a direct result of that, so I owe so much to it.”

Nutcracker! went on to play London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre for the following two Christmas seasons and toured the UK, including Birmingham, in 2003. Matthew made some tweaks for that tour and has returned to it again for the latest production.

“For me, any opportunity to take another look at a piece and re-work it is very welcome. This is the first time since then that we’ve had a chance to look at the entire production again, so we’ve redesigned it to make it all fresh. I didn’t quite expect how far we would go - the whole thing has taken several big notches up. It was always spectacular, but it’s even more so now.

“People who’ve seen it before will recognise the places it goes to and the costumes and choreography. No big ideas have changed, but they’ve all been re-thought and looked at again.”

Designer Anthony Ward and lighting designer Howard Harrison have both returned to the production, working with Matthew to incorporate some new elements.

“We have new technology now - we use projection in the show in a subtle way. In the last few years, I’ve found with other productions that small elements of projection can really add to the show.

“It felt like we were doing a new show when we were in tech at the beginning of the tour. It was an exciting time for me. It didn’t feel like just a revival. We have a new box of tricks to play with!

“You don’t want to play with a show for no reason, you want to feel you’re improving it. And also theatre changes and the possibility of what you can do changes, and I love to embrace those developments.”

For Matthew, re-working a classic story gives audiences an opportunity to see the work afresh, finding new and possibly more contemporary or relevant meanings.

“When you take on board a piece which is much-loved by so many people, you have to walk a tightrope between doing something different - so that it’s exciting and has surprises in it - and taking care not to make it so different that it’s not the piece you’ve advertised.

“So you take the elements people know and you do them in a different way. We have the snow scene and the growing Christmas tree and the land of sweets, but you think, ‘What can we do with these to make it fresh?’ That’s my approach really.”

In Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker!, the grand Christmas party in the original ballet is replaced with a dour orphanage where even the children’s presents are taken away from them. The adventure then moves into the Land of Snow before reaching Sweetieland, where a host of new characters come alive.

“One of the things we felt quite strongly when we made the piece originally is that the Christmas party which begins the original version looks like the Christmas of quite a privileged family with a big gathering, a big, lush Christmas tree and lots of presents. 

“It already feels like you’re in a fantasy land for most of the audience, so the idea that this piece then takes you to another world doesn’t quite fit. But to start in a grim orphanage, which is monochrome, with a very sad, low-key Christmas, seemed like a great idea because you are then taking the audience on a real journey. 

“When you take the audience to the Land of Snow, it has a sense of escape and freedom, and Sweetieland is a glorious, fantastical world that really juxtaposes the world that you’ve come from. I think for the audience that works much better.”

Matthew is looking forward to returning to Birmingham after last touring to the city in 2019 with Swan Lake.

“The Hippodrome is one of the best and the most beautiful theatres in the country, but also, when you feel wanted somewhere, you have a real affection for it. It’s always packed out for us in Birmingham, and when you feel you’ve got that kind of following and trust from an audience, it’s something special.”

He also feels Nutcracker! is the perfect show to be touring now: “The funny thing about this piece is that because Christmas is quite low-key in the production, we can tour it through to April, as it works on other levels.

“Audiences are making the decision to come back to live theatre. For audiences to be greeted by such a warm show that really is uplifting and genuinely exciting feels like us playing our part in a wider picture.”

Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker! shows at Birmingham Hippodrome from Tues 8 to Sat 12 February.