Interview: Matthew Bourne talks all things Nutcracker!

Matthew Bourne talks about his Nutcracker! which is celebrating its 30th Birthday next year

Tchaikovsky’s ballet of The Nutcracker is nearly 130 years old and it remains incredibly popular today. What is it that makes it a beloved favourite with audiences?

NUTCRACKER by Bourne, , Director and Choreographer – Matthew Bourne, Designer – Anthony Ward, Lighting – Howard Harrison, Projection – Duncan McLean, Theatre Royal Plymouth, 2021, Credit: Johan Persson/

I’m convinced that the main reason that The Nutcracker has retained its perennial appeal is because of Tchaikovsky’s incredible score. Act One contains some of his most engaging and, at times, profound, story-telling music and Act Two has one glorious melody after another. After 130 years it retains its mystery, magic, and the power to transport us to another world.

Some Nutcrackers can be a little tricky to understand but our versiontells a simple story very clearly; it’s a wish fulfilment story, a story with a heroine (Clara) who has a lot to overcome and who eventually wins through. It’s about growing up and first love and these are things everyone can relate to.  I think this is why it remains so popular with all members of the family.

New Adventures’ Nutcracker! has now been performed for nearly 30 years and is a classic in its own right. In 1992, what was it that inspired you to create this unique version beginning in a Dickensian Orphanage?

For the original 1992 Opera North Centennial production, which was a double-bill with the Tchaikovsky opera Yolande, the designer, Anthony Ward and I, worked with the director Martin Duncan, who collaborated with us on the concept for the show.  We always wanted to find something that, in certain key ways, reflected the piece that people knew. Most Nutcrackers are completely different to ours and sometimes difficult to follow but we wanted to create a story that had its own logic whilst delivering all the iconic Nutcracker highlights. Our first thought was to reject the large, overpopulated, present-filled family Christmas party, which normally opens the classical version, feeling that this rather privileged atmosphere may already represent something of a fantasy to many of our audience! Picking up on the tradition of including very young dancers in most Nutcracker productions, we decided to set the production in a Dickensian orphanage. All the young inmates are played by adult dancers, celebrating a rather modest Christmas Eve party, overseen by the fearsome Dr and Mrs Dross and their terribly spoilt children, Fritz and Sugar.  This darker/monochrome world in the Act One orphanage gave us an exhilarating release into the silvery white expanse of the Frozen Lake at the end of Act One and, even more so, into the technicolour explosion that is Sweetieland in Act Two.

The famous ‘Snowflakes’ sequence which ends Act One is transformed into a glorious ice-skating extravaganza in your staging. What was the inspiration for this?

There are certain things that every production of Nutcracker should deliver:  the magical growing Christmas Tree; the transformation of the Nutcracker into a handsome young man; and the falling of the snow during the ‘snowflakes’ sequence. Everyone feels a sense of childlike pleasure when snow begins to fall, and I wanted to try and capture that sense of pure joy seen through the eyes of the orphan children. So, rather than depict the snowflakes themselves, as in the classical version, I have our orphans, who have escaped from the Orphanage, skating across a frozen pond as an uplifting expression of their newfound freedom. The idea, however, came not from Torvill and Dean (much as I love them) but from the 30’s movie musical skating star, Sonje Henie who suggested much of the choreography for this memorable sequence. For me, she is the perfect image of Princess Sugar and Anthony Ward certainly found inspiration in her many and varied skating ensembles.

One of the highlights of the Petipa/Ivanov original is always the suite of National Dances that are staged for Clara’s edification in The Land of The Sweets for which you created a whole set of new characters.

Another sequence that we decided to re-think was the depiction of the “national” dances with their sometimes problematic cultural stereotyping.  One of the great pleasures of this production was the creation of these unique “Sweetieland” characters and linking them with their orphanage counterparts. In Clara’s imagination her friends become the fluffy Marshmallow girls, the yobby Gobstopper boys, the vain Allsort trio and the lewd and sticky Knickerbocker Glory. Her best friends at the orphanage, the twins, become her heavenly helpers, the pyjama-clad Cupids. Dr and Mrs Dross transform into the gluttonous rulers of Sweetieland, King Sherbet and Queen Candy, and their brattish children, Sugar and Fritz, grow up into the glamorous Princess Sugar and the saucy Prince Bon Bon. Everything is edible in Sweetieland, and its inhabitants are judged not by how they look but by how they taste!

How will this production differ from the production that was last seen nearly 10 years ago?

This is very much a new production. It stays close to the 1992 scenario written by Martin Duncan and myself, however, the show has been substantially re-choreographed and Anthony Ward has re-thought his memorable and iconic designs to spectacular effect. In fact, our aim was to take a fresh look at every aspect of the show whilst retaining the innocence and charm of the original production. One thing that has not been re-thought and updated is the much-loved score.  Thirty years on I find Tchaikovsky’s music more and more profound; its magic turns us all into kids again.

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