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Matthew Bourne's 'Highland Fling'

A Romantic Wee Ballet

by Ana Abad-Carles

September 2 , 2005 -- Sadler's Wells, London

Matthew Bourne presented his “Highland Fling” at Sadler’s Wells after its success last season at the theatre. The ballet is a reworking of an earlier version, enlarged for a bigger company, and it was based on the story of “La Sylphide,” using the same music, by Hermann Lovenskjold, as Bournonville’s version in 1836.

Reworking classics (or a Romantic Ballet in this case) is not an easy task and it can easily go wrong. Trying to introduce new ideas especially into those works created prior to Peter Tchaikovsky’s scores tends to fail in the handling of the music. Lovenskjold was no Tchaikovsky by any stretch of the imagination. Therefore there are serious limitations to what one can do with the ballet. The simplicity of the score and its obvious mime passages are very limiting when it comes to creating a contemporary version. The second act of Mats Ek’s “Giselle”, in the 1980’s, suffered from this handicap. One witnessed that the action on the stage had little to do with the music playing in the background.

Bearing this in mind, with “Highland Fling” Bourne has succeeded in creating a version that cleverly echoes that of the original, though in a different context of course, and does not clash too much with the music. He has changed the ballet’s original title, in order not to confuse audiences that might otherwise think they are going to see classical ballet.

Bourne’s newest work is a joyous work with a tragic end; it works because it is so cleverly theatrical that its simplicity carries you through the piece, almost disguising the choreographic limitations. Bourne obviously showed his grasp of theatre to great advantage in his version of “Swan Lake”, and in this latest reworking of an earlier piece one can see that he has learned his craft. There is no pretentiousness in his handling of the original. He has not ignored the narrative perfection of the original, the perfect timing for the different numbers and their alternate passages of mime and dance. He has obviously followed them to the dot.

”Highland Fling” is set in Glasgow and the Sylph meets her object of attention in a public toilet, instead of the lovely interior of a manor. James is a drug addicted, disillusioned youth who finds, in the Sylph, something that removes him from the reality he seems unable to confront. The Sylph is, as in the original, a free spirit, charming, capricious and at times a little bit devilish. Her choreography clearly contrasts with that given to the rest of the mortals; she is airy, adopts Romantic poses from time to time and does not follow any choreographic fashion of the day. The rest of the cast is given lots of disco steps from the sixties and seventies reminiscent of Mark Morris’ “Hard Nut”.

All the main characters of the original are in “Highland Fling”: Effie, Gurn and even a transformed Madge, who does not have a final hand in the development of the story, but acts as a fortune teller. The first act, as in the original, develops within the realism of the action and the presence of the Sylph. Unlike the original, James and Effie get married, adding an extra dramatic point in which to insert the famous “Gigue” as a celebration dance. Unfortunately, the “Gigue” fails in comparison to that choreographed by Bournonville, and it is a shame, for Scotland to this day is famous for its jigs. The act finishes with James jumping off the window of his flat in pursuit of the Sylph.

The second act takes place in an automobile junkyard. The appearance of the Sylphs sets the piece on a completely different mood, which is highly effective. In an interview in the programme, Bourne states that his inspiration for this act was based more on “Giselle” than on “La Sylphide” -- it is clear to see. Instead of charming Sylphs, Bourne has more devilish creatures that are wilder and nearer to the nature of the Willis. The choreography resembles that which Bourne created for his male Swans in his “Swan Lake”.

In fact, Bourne’s choreography is not the strongest point of “Highland Fling”. The same choreographic movement used in his white acts in “Swan Lake” is performed again, in a different context. Bourne has a limited movement vocabulary and his “style” seems to emanate from a movement sequence that he keeps reworking for the occasion. He is a very clever choreographer though as he hides his shortcomings with great theatrical skill. His humor is also contagious. While in the original “La Sylphide”, the Sylph shows James around and brings him water, Bourne introduces sweet little animals in what resembles a scene from Bambi -- it is simply fantastic and great fun to watch!

James keeps trying to emulate the Sylphs and his character starts getting a bit darker, while those of the Sylphs seem to soften by the minute. Bourne handles the dramatic end of the story intelligently, redeeming himself from my objections to his “Swan Lake”, in which all his female characters were either whores or puritans. Bourne’s Sylph is ready to abandon her home and friends in order to follow James, only to find her wings cut from her -- a sad metaphor for a sad reality. She then dies tragically. The Sylphs return to take her corpse and James himself turns into a Sylph hovering outside Effie and Gurn’s domestic life.

Of course, Bourne’s version of “La Sylphide” is not Bournonville’s, but it certainly is very good. He has managed to update a Romantic ballet while making full use of its music. He has created a very theatrical, entertaining and quite remarkable piece that shows a depth of characterization in his reworking of the Sylph. If only he could access a greater range of movement vocabulary, “Highland Fling” would be a great work.

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