British director-choreographer Matthew Bourne’s adaptations include a radical “Swan Lake” that earned him two Tony Awards on Broadway in 1999, plus versions of such other iconic fairy-dusted tales as “Sleeping Beauty” and “Edward Scissorhands.” Now he has trained his unique hybrid gaze on the classic 1948 Michael Powell-Emerick Pressburger film “The Red Shoes” (after the Hans Christian Andersen tale) to create a dance piece that just made its U.S. debut in Los Angeles and plays the Kennedy Center’s Opera House on Tuesday through Sunday. Bourne will be here this week — “I’m always messing about with my own work, having new thoughts,” he says — and recently spoke about the new show by phone from his home in London.
Why did you want to adapt “The Red Shoes”?
It was on a list I’ve had for many years, something I’d written 20 years ago. I thought it might make good dance-theater piece. It was the music, really, that stopped me from going for it sooner. It didn’t feel right, the music from the film. It only covered the ballet. The idea of using Bernard Herrmann gave me the impetus to say this could be great. I’d always loved the film and wanted to do something with it.
Why Bernard Herrmann music?
I’ve always been a fan of his. I was working in my head on a Hitchcock-inspired musical, and “Red Shoes” was on my list as well, so I thought, “Why not put the two together? Let’s find other Herrmann music.” I always loved the score of “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” and found lots of other things — concert music, suites around “Citizen Kane.” It all came together, and it sounds like a complete new score. It was great fun to pull together, but very difficult rights wise. They were all over the place. It was quite distressing at times.
Outside of the music, what was the most challenging thing about adapting this? It’s a famously cinematic picture, with its occasional special effects and lavish look.
I’m not one for re-creating, to slavishly re-create. And that is part of the creative challenge, to make a piece of cinema into a piece of theater. The film has an enormous amount of dialogue, and dancing only takes up 30 percent of it, maybe. So the whole story has to be told through dance. Non-dancing characters have to be able to dance. I knew it would be a challenge to come up to the atmosphere and impact of that film, the Technicolor riot and the cinematic grandeur. We decided to do something almost the opposite, go stark and almost shock the audience with the set. You go into a different world when you go into the ballet within the piece. But these pieces aren’t fun unless there’s a challenge.
You occupy a sort of gray area between dance and theater. How did you decide that was the spot for you?
We sort of created our own genre, in a weird way — like musical theater without songs, dance theater, ballet, all these different things. So labeling becomes difficult with me, and always has been. I didn’t decide. I do what feels right, and I’ve always been interested in telling a story. My background was more than dance; I had no dance training until I was 22. I was a big theater fan, loved plays, musical theater, films. All those influences come into my work. I use all those elements to tell a story. It has attracted an audience — we wouldn’t attract the audience we get if we didn’t go beyond the dance audience. We play for months, rather than a few days.
Are you part of the ballet scene, or apart from it?
I feel I’m welcomed by it. I haven’t come through that world. I’ve come through an alternate route. But I quite like the position I’m in. In the dance world and in the theater world, I’m seen as different. It kind of works, in a way. Particularly now, people have come to accept what my company does. I think I have a good relationship with other big dance companies. We all have different things to offer, so there’s no sense in competing.
What do you look for when casting dancers?
Individuality, personality and generosity of spirit in the way dancers perform. And I’m looking for dancers who can act. Dancers aren’t usually trained as actors. It’s wanting to communicate. I need them to all be individual and different, because we’re telling stories. We don’t want people cloned to look similar. They have to be good dancers, obviously. I do tend now not to have to work so hard to find them. They grew up looking at my work, so I attract those kinds of performers.
What else are you working on?
I tend to work on the most recent show a lot. It never really stops. I’m about to revive “Cinderella” for London, and I’m looking toward doing a new project; we did “Lord of the Flies” a few years ago that involved young people in each city we went to. I’m not allowed to say yet what this next project is, but it’s a similar project that will involve young talent.
Christopher Wheeldon’s “An American in Paris” will be at the Kennedy Center in December. Should we draw any conclusions from seeing two epic, Technicolor mid-century movie adaptations? Is there a movement going on?
That’s interesting. I started to feel with this score there’s a lot of untapped movie composers’ music written to tell a story. The music we used in “The Red Shoes” has never been danced to or used theatrically before. Christopher Wheeldon and I have both been involved in different versions of the classics. Once you’ve done those, you’ve got to look for new pieces. That’s how “The Red Shoes” came about, and I think with film scores, there’s a lot more that could be found there. That could be an interesting thing.
The Red Shoes, Oct. 10-15 at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House. Tickets $29-$129. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.