— Scottish Ballet (@scottishballet) May 1, 2018
Why the fuss? Well, Matthew Bourne’s Highland Fling is an awfully clever show that delivers dance magic well beyond the “Trainspotting in tartan and tutus” badge that many give it. It’s based on one of ballet’s most enduring and earliest works, La Sylphide, a romantic ballet based in Scotland complete with misty woodland spirits, or the sylphs of the title. The plot is essentially simple: James is due to marry Effie but comes under the spell of a mischievous Sylph; they fall in love and in looking to stop the Sylph from leaving his side James effectively shorns her of her wings and ability to fly. But instead of keeping her, she dies in his arms – you just can’t tie a spirit down.
Bourne resets the action to 90’s Glasgow (it was created in 1994), with James no longer the farmer but an unemployed welder living in a council flat and having fun at a very rough nightclub on the eve of his wedding. It famously starts with him popping pills in the toilet and collapsing unconscious in the urinal. It’s drunken urban grittiness all the way as bare bottoms get waggled and slapped, kilts get raised and sex happens. You think,”did that really happen?’ and it’s gone in a flash as Bourne teases us, be we teenagers or pensioners. It’s deftly handled reality that you don’t always associate with a ballet stage. Act 1 (of 2) is mainly about the real world, preparations for the wedding, partying and lots of featured friends of the couple, all with rich backstories – I just love “Ewan, who is confused” and “Jeannie, a fashion victim”. It’s all rather cartoonish, rammed home by Lez Brotherston’s colourful sets for the nightclub toilets and council tenement. And weaving in and around is the evolving relationship between James and the Sylph – the serious core of the work.
Act 2 takes place outside Glasgow, the city lights twinkling in the background. It’s a woodland glade, filled with fly-tipped household rubbish, and the home of the sylphs, an equally impure and rather gaudy lot who stamp and hiss as they go about their business. It’s here that James and the Sylph consummate their love, wittily handled, including the appearance of happy woodland creatures on cue to perfectly complement post-coital bliss. Can the world get better? Of course not, as James goes on to mistakenly and violently cut off the Sylphs wings (blood everywhere) and she dies. The act ends with James entering the sylphs’ world and watching over Effie being consoled by Gurn, his way more reliable friend. Hopefully, the jilted Effie finds the happiness that eluded the Sylph and James and some crumb of comfort from the tragedy.
Leading out Highland Fling were Christopher Harrison and Constance Devernay, and a most believable and touching job they made of it too. Harrison brings out the laddish innocent abroad, bamboozled by what happens to him and then consumed with love – if it could happen to him it could happen to anybody, you think. Devernay is all of a minx, playfully darting around and enchanted by the real word and the prince of a man she spies. She too is an innocent, looking all too fallible, made stunningly readable in Devernay’s body language, even from under a mask of ghostly makeup. But it’s a team effort, and they are supported by a lot of defined roles, richly painted in the two shows I saw and adding to the narrative. Bourne’s storytelling is crystal clear, though the programme contains usefully brief notes on the characters and plot. But Bourne doesn’t just deliver a terrific piece of dance theatre; it’s more the total experience. So as you enter the auditorium a selection of nostalgic Scottish ditties are being played – think Andy Stewart’s “Donald Wheres Your Troosers” and similar. A rosy old view of Scotland, replaced as the house lights go down, by a disco beat of today, before it all fades into Lovenskjold’s timeless Sylphide score. And at the end we have choreographed curtain-calls, which get the audience clapping along in unison and more Scottish ditties as we leave – we’ve come satisfyingly full circle. Highland Fling might have been born in London, but it’s Scottish to the core, loving warts and all.
Touring Highland Fling has been a major undertaking necessitating the company building its own touring stage, wings and lighting rig capable of being rapidly deployed in the sport and leisure facilities being used – theatres big enough just aren’t there. They even have to take their own generators to augment the locally available electricity supply. Not cheap but gratifying to see the endeavour supported by Scottish companies associated with the Highland and Islands – Loganair, the ferry companies NorthLink and CalMac, and Orkney-based Whisky distillers, Highland Park. (Full disclosure – a few free glasses of their 18-year-old single malt and I’m totally sold! But in all seriousness do note that I paid my own way to Lerwick and so fully appreciate the costs and logistics in travelling to such far-flung parts of the country. The SB sponsors are truly to be much thanked.)
— Scottish Ballet (@scottishballet) April 30, 2018
Many talk about ballet’s future and the need to push the art forward and that usually crystallises out into creating new work by interesting choreographers, and hurrah to that. But it can also mean taking dance out to new audiences and to places that don’t regularly see it – after all these people pay their taxes too and should see the best of publicly subsidised performing arts. It’s all too easy for companies to see touring as expensive and a needless cost, and find reasons to stay in their metropolitan silos playing to the appreciative converted. I applaud Highland Fling as a terrific show, but I applaud even more the spirit of the company in taking it out to the furthest extremities of the nation that funds them, and I’m sure their visits will be long remembered and talked of.