Matthew Bourne’s Asian venture

A scene from New Adventures’ Sleeping Beauty at the Theatre Royal Plymouth in 2015. Photo: Johan Persson
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Always a company to live up to its name, Matt-hew Bourne’s New Adventures spent a large slice of 2016 on a five-city tour of Asia, taking Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty to South Korea, Singapore, China and Japan.

It wasn’t the company’s first Asian adventure – that was to Japan back in 2003, the year after it was formed out of Bourne’s original company, Adventures in Motion Pictures. And there have been more recent trips to South Korea and China.

What made this adventure new was the level of engagement the company had with its Asian audiences and its venue partners.

For its UK tours, New Adventures’ charitable arm, Re:Bourne, has been creating inclusive performances and projects with local dance fans of all ages and abilities since it was formed in 2008. And it was this kind of participation from Re:Bourne that helped make the 2016 Asian tour so special.

The added levels of engagement didn’t start with audiences, according to the New Adventures group managing director, Robert Noble. It was all about tailoring the experience with the venues themselves.

Matthew Bourne and Robert Noble with the international prize at The Stage Awards 2017. Photo: David Monteith-Hodge

He explains: “This was the first time that we tried to create an integrated policy with those venues. Not only in terms of what was going to be performed on their stages, which of course is the major repertoire of Matthew’s company, but also in all of the other areas of activity that would take place around this particular tour.”

In terms of engagement with the venues, it was a solid success. So much so that the venues nominated New Adventures and Re:Bourne for the international award at The Stage Awards – which it won last month.

The nomination was for more than the performances and engagement. Of course a total audience of more than 70,000 helped, but it extended to the creation of strategic partnerships, by which the company can come back to the area and also build relationships with new venues.

Describing the tour as a “period of major success for New Adventures and Re:Bourne across Asia”, the nomination talked in glowing terms of the collaboration between all the different partners, together with the company’s part in the UK’s Great campaign, which promotes UK exports.

It said: “The company worked tirelessly to build strategic relationships while also engaging with audiences face-to-face. This ability to recognise the importance of both the big strategic business benefits of international partnership, as well as the intimate and personal, is exceptional. The company really does fly the flag for the very best of British arts and culture and truly is an ambassador for the UK when overseas.”

The aim of New Adventures when working abroad, according to Noble, has always been to reproduce the same show that has been seen in the UK, in terms of production standards and quality. Bourne himself travels out to the international venues and works on the press and publicity as he would do in the UK.

The same company of dancers that opened the show in Sadler’s Wells for its Christmas run and toured around the UK goes out on the international tour – after a short break while the set is being freighted across the world.

For this tour, things were slightly different. “For Sleeping Beauty, we built a second set so we could air-freight our costumes and our light fabrics from venue to venue, but we have a second physical production that we freight by ship,” explains Noble.

“If you do that with only one set, you start getting into problems because it is taking too much time to get from Singapore to China, for example. They are kind of leapfrogging each other across Asia, so it is obviously pretty complicated from a logistical point of view, as far as customs and everything else is concerned.”

Historically, it has been the dancers in the production who have delivered the Re:Bourne events. It is the model that most dance companies employ.


5 things you need to know about New Adventures and Re:Bourne’s Asian tour 2016

1. Re:Bourne’s Beauty Sleep project in Tokyo involved more than 400 participants, aged between 15 and 45, who were a mixture of professional dancers, dancers-in-training and amateurs.

2. Re:Bourne delivered a total of 16 projects on the tour. A ‘Curtain Raiser’ performance in Shanghai involving 30 adults played to an audience of more than 900 and was featured on the TV evening news.

3. The venues involved in the tour are planning to invite New Adventures to tour to Asia annually from 2018. It will be the first company of its kind to have this regularity of dates.

4. The tour took in Seoul, Singapore, Beijing, Tokyo and Shanghai, playing to a total audience of 71,108. It is expected that more venues will be added for future tours.

5. In Shanghai the company performed for 16 performances over two weeks. A season of this length is unique for an international touring dance company.

New Adventures executive director James Mackenzie-Blackman is in charge of overseeing this element and says the company is now in the position where it can tour additional staff and dance artists to deliver the programme. This alleviates the pressure on the performing company.

Mackenzie-Blackman explains: “We have a whole body of dancers who have been in the company for a number of years, who may indeed have been in the particular show we are touring, and will certainly have been in the rehearsal process and learned repertoire from the production. This means we can bring a robust and large-scale programme of activity alongside the production.

“In Asia, to raise awareness of the production, the Re:Bourne team will often be travelling out of tandem with the main show. For example in Tokyo, the Re:Bourne team was there seven days in advance of the physical production, which really raised awareness of the show being about to land in Tokyo. It supported ticket sales and raised awareness about emerging dance talent in and around the Tokyo region.”

This approach also allows the company to tailor a programme of events that is suitable for each theatre and isn’t reliant on when the performers are free to deliver a workshop.

Once the tour is agreed, the company discusses with the venues what their particular interests are, their particular targets around community and audience engagement.

Free from the constraints of language, dance might be an easily transferable art form, one that is clear in its narrative wherever in the world you see it. But cultural differences come into play with regards the delivery of the surrounding programme.

“I am a big believer in not delivering activity for activity’s sake and really playing to the individual venues’ own areas of expertise or interest,” says Mackenzie-Blackman. “In China, for example, there is not a huge culture of delivering community outreach programmes with children and young people, because of the culture around school and the importance of education.

Participants at Re:Bourne’s Beauty Sleep workshop in Tokyo.

“When we were initiating conversations with our partners in China, it was very clear that getting a group of 20 16-18-year-olds out of school for a week to deliver a project with us was never going to happen. But there is a big culture there of emerging dance talent, of dancers in their early 20s and training for a career as professional dancers. The venues wanted to engage with them, so we did some activity with that group.”

While Bourne himself points out the universal nature of his dance productions, he admits that there are cultural differences that affect the performances as the company travels the world.

He says: “There are odd assumptions you make that you think people know about and they don’t necessarily. Humour is very different, we have quite a lot of humour in our pieces. What I have always found is that alternative things will get laughs. Things that were a dead cert in the UK will be tumbleweed and then something else will strike people as funny.

“Sometimes, if it is a conservative country, people will be upset by things and you have to make a judgement on that, on whether you feel it is important to show that element or whether you don’t want to offend anyone.

“Mostly, because we come as an international company, the work you do is generally respected – it is what it is, we have been asked by them to come. They will be much more open-minded about it actually, even if it is something that they might find offensive or different or shocking or something.”

Once again, it is in the surrounding and supporting elements of the tour that the cultural differences are most obvious – and not just when Bourne found that he had to explain who Fred Astaire was, when citing him as an influence in interviews.

The nomination document gives a bit of insight to how the cultural differences manifest themselves, with a specific mention of the social media and non-dance contact the company had with the audience.

“The social media channels used in Asia are not the same as those used in the West,” the nomination says. “As such, we collaborated with the New Adventures team to ensure audiences and fans of the company received rich, bespoke content on platforms they were familiar with and used.”

This meant that engagement was exceptionally high, with audiences able to feel connected to the company and have their love for the show acknowledged and responded to.

“Asian audiences are enthusiastic for insights, backstage access and face-to-face contact with the New Adventures dancers in a way that is not so prevalent in the UK. In recognition of this, the company adapted their working day to ensure dancers were available for autograph signing, selfies and photographs at almost every performance, rotating this between performing and non-performing dancers.”

And this love of touring, of engaging across cultures, begins at the top. Bourne talks eloquently of his love of sitting with audience members, in the thick of them, listening to their responses to the piece on stage.

Noble, too, has a glint about him as he adds: “I passionately enjoy the relationships you build up with different people in different parts of the world and how you manage those relationships. You have to learn about the culture, about how they think about us.”

Profile: New Adventures and Re:Bourne

Artistic director: Matthew Bourne
Group managing director: Robert Noble
Executive director: James Mackenzie-Blackman
Number of performances: 276
Audience figures: 304,585
Number of employees: Seven full/part-time, office-based employees; 145 artists and technical staff employed over the year
Turnover: £6.4 million
Funding levels: Arts Council England (2015/16): £1.3 million
Key contacts: new-adventures.net
Twitter: @new_adventures