Matthew Bourne is the most famous choreographer of his time, and his name alone sells out his ballet tours. But if you thought the all-male Swan Lake was controversial, try his interpretation of Cinderella – set in the Blitz. Katherine MACAlister gets to the bottom of this inspirational man of dance.

It took Matthew Bourne years to settle on the winning formula for Cinderella.

Ideas had been swirling around in his mind, but nothing that worked, nothing that satisfied this choreographic genius.

It was only when he realised the ballet had been written during the Second World War, that he saw its historical potential, finally setting it in the Blitz.

“I began listening to Cinderella with that in mind and really felt it in the music – it had a sense of the war in it, it felt melancholic and escapist which was all relevant to a war-time setting. It all made sense,” Matthew says earnestly.

But when you consider his humble beginnings, Matthew Bourne’s own life is not unlike a modern day fairytale. He detested school and spent his time dressing up his friends and performing shows. “At school there was very little interest in arts, it was all about sport so I hated it. My life was outside of school and I was completely precocious. My poor brother...” he remembers.

His parents were keen on films, theatre and musicals, but never for a moment thought that Matthew might one day enter this magical arena. Instead he satisfied himself with autograph hunting in the West End.

“There is a contradiction there but then we were all pretty naive. There was no lack of support or enthusiasm for dance, theatre or film – we were all in love with it,” he explains. “We were like a family of fans but we didn’t know how to get into it or what you needed to do, even though I was quite sure what I was good at.

“This is why I fell into dance, because before that I was acting and had a stint as a casting director. I just wanted to be involved and I was always happy doing what I was doing, but I never had this ambition, even though I was always doing something, and I’ve always remained like that a little bit. I’ve always done things that felt right and I felt good about.”

And so the boy at the stage door finally got let into the magical world he’d been watching from the sidelines all this time, through dance.

What Matthew doesn’t mention is how well he has been choreographing and directing ever since. His daredevil ideas, combined with a choreographic artistry one can only dream of, have kept him at the top ever since, and provided him with a list of accolades as long as your arm – Olivier and Tony Awards, an OBE for services to dance and the prestigious Hamburg Shakespeare Award for the Arts, only the second dance artist to be so recognised.

It began with his version of The Nutcracker which opened the country’s eyes to a whole new world of dance, then the all-male Swan Lake was released (which featured in the last scene of Billy Elliot) and turned Matthew into a global phenomenon overnight.

“As far as Swan Lake was concerned, nothing has ever happened like that in the dance world. That was a real surprise. It wasn’t just about being on The West End and Broadway, but we were on CNN and the news,” he says incredulously.

So what was it that Matthew did that was so controversial? “I think it was because we took an iconic image and turned it into another iconic image,” he says slowly.

“Which is why I’ve always done dance that was true to me and not followed a trend, that was a conscious decision.”

And did the fame have a big effect on him? “Well after that I was an international name and it made the company bigger because I had to respond to the world and we were not prepared for it.

“We were suddenly doing eight shows a week and our dancers kept getting injured and ill and I realised early on I needed to come to terms with it and deal with it, and after that things improved,” he admits.

“But there were also a lot of offers to do things I’d never done before which was very flattering. So I had to ask myself what I was good at and had a lot of thinking to do.”

And then he laughs: “And I turned down some crazy things, some of which I should have done, like direct Wicked. I wish I’d done that because now I’d be a very wealthy man.

“But for me having a company has been the primary goal and the reason I love doing what I do and I’ve come to realise I’d rather be doing that.”

Consistently busy, it’s only because of a rare day off in the tour, that I manage to nail down the 51-year-old for an interview. Currently planning his dance company’s 25th anniversary agenda next year, The Nutcracker is being revived alongside his early work, the Play Without Words, as well as some new stuff.

And now that Oxford’s on the Matthew Bourne map for the first time, we can expect to see a lot more of him.

“Oxford is a new venue for us and it takes a while to build up an audience, but once they come and see it, they get to know you and keep coming back,” he says.

So is there anything that still eludes him? “Sleeping Beauty,” he says instantly.

“I have had Sleeping Beauty on the backburner for many years, but nothing yet,” Matthew admits. “And not until I have a good idea, so it’s constantly on my mind, on-and-off.”

So what’s the problem? “Well there’s not much of a story because Sleeping Beauty is asleep most of the time, so there aren’t that many actual events to plan a ballet around,” he says smiling in exasperation. “While Cinderella has a beginning, middle and end, in Sleeping Beauty there’s not a lot to get my teeth into, so I’m still searching for the trigger,” he says.

“But I also always have the tour in mind from the beginning so that all the audiences get the same set, design and show as you’d get in London, and not a watered down version. Because that’s what I think ballet should do – serve the public. I’ve always believed in that.

“Because it’s such a privilege to have your own ballet company performing your own work and even after all this time I still can’t quite believe it.”

* Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella runs at the New Theatre from May 10-14. Box office on 0844 8471585.