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Matthew Bourne on 'Highland Fling'

Worlds in collision

by Patricia Somerset

January 15, 2005 -- London

Matthew Bourne is starting 2005 with a revival of “Highland Fling”, originally premiered in 1994. For this year’s tour the choreography has been re-worked and the number of dancers increased so there will be no problem with the larger venues.

“Highland Fling” tells the story of James, a young Glaswegian, who is lured away from his fiancee by a beautiful sylph who he follows from the club world and housing estates of Glasgow to an unearthly, magical world. In the first half, the set designer (Bourne’s Artistic Associate, Lez Brotherston) provides “a riot of tartan”, while the sylphs are not the immaculate fairy figures of “Les Sylphides”; these are “savage sylphs” with grass stains and mud on their white dresses as evidence of living in the woods.

The 2005 cast features Will Kemp and James Leece as James; and Kerry Biggin and Noi Tolmer as the Sylph. The Associate Director is Etta Murfitt, who has collaborated with Matthew Bourne over a long period.

I first asked Matthew why he had decided to revive “Highland Fling”. He replied that as several years have passed since the initial, short run, he believes there are now new audiences for the piece and dancers who have not performed it before. It also provides the opportunity of offering a fresh challenge to dancers who have been in the long run of “Nutcracker!”.

The challenge to the dancers is not just in dancing a new work. For instance, the dancers can develop the characters they play and have the freedom to create ideas before he finalises the piece. In this way, dancers have ownership of the work and a higher level of satisfaction and commitment. This approach, combined with the style of Matthew’s work, mean that he needs dancers who have individuality and personality and display versatility, alongside a range of dance skills. While they may not start by having acting ability, Matthew believes that their “desire to connect with the audience” leads to the development of these skills.

When Matthew was asked why he produced “Highland Fling” originally, he said that before he choreographed “The Nutcracker”, he had only created short pieces. However, for “The Nutcracker”, he found that he enjoyed the structure working to a score provides, and so he decided next to make “Highland Fling” and a year later, “Swan Lake”. In “Les Sylphides” he was attracted by the collision of the two worlds, one real and the other ethereal. In “Highland Fling” the reality is hard edged, based in Glasgow’s club and drugs culture, but danced with Bourne ’s trademark humour.

When asked what audience he envisaged for “Highland Fling”, Matthew replied that although he hoped it would appeal to dance lovers, it was not necessary to know anything about dance to enjoy it. Further, if audience members are familiar with “Les Sylphides”, this might add to their enjoyment, but as his works stand alone, there is no need for a prior knowledge of the original. In particular, he hopes that the club scenes and humour of “Highland Fling” will appeal to teenagers. The score includes some very melodramatic moments reminiscent of the music that accompanied silent films. Rather than try and avoid this melodrama, Bourne has choreographed dance scenes that are dramatic and explosive to match the music. This is especially true in the first half where the characters are trying to get away from boring jobs by living on the edge.

Bourne believes that one of the assets of “Highland Fling” is that it can be performed in a range of venues, both large and small and as the set is adaptable it should not be a problem to take it out to the regions. He strongly believes that new works should not just be put on in London and New Adventures has built up relationships with venues around the country so that it can take its productions outside the capital. When asked how he thought Glasgow would like the work, Matthew replied that he didn’t know, but there were two Scottish dancers in the company and they, at least, weren’t offended by it.

He regretted that there would not be live music in all the venues, but this was a funding issue. The Arts Council does not revenue fund New Adventures so they cannot afford live music, unless the venue can provide this; but an exceptional Arts Council grant made it possible at Sadler’s Wells. The lack of an ACE grant also means that although he would much prefer it, dancers could not be on year long contracts, which means, for instance, that they are not paid for the three week setting-up period.

In response to questions about "Swan Lake", Matthew said that he did get irritated by the way it was described in the press as “an all-male version of 'Swan Lake'” or a gay version. This was not the intention and though the male swans could be seen as homo-erotic, they were just as likely to be attractive to women. The work has been successful wherever it is performed. The story lures people in with humour and this contrasts with the final tragedy, making it much more powerful. When asked about being criticised for being a director and not a choreographer, Matthew said that of course the dance steps were important, but so was telling the story. He feels that now his pieces have been successful there is more of an acceptance of his way of working.

Turning to the success of “Mary Poppins”, Matthew said that of course he is very pleased with it, but he doubts that most audience members are aware that he is the choreographer, as he believes that when people read a programme they are generally much more interested in the performers. For the future, he hopes that his “Edward Scissorhands” project will come to fruition this year.

After the interview, I attended a rehearsal of “Highland Fling”, where the company danced three short sections. Although they had only been rehearsing for three days, the quality of their performance was already outstanding. Thus, it came as no surprise when the premiere at the Churchill Theatre a month later provided an exciting and original evening of dance.

Edited by Staff.


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