The comedic Scots ditty “Donald Where’s Your Troosers?” is not your typical balletic overture, but then Matthew Bourne’s Highland Fling is not your typical Scottish Ballet production. Designed to attract the younger generation of theatre-goers who might be put off by more austere productions such as Swan Lake or Giselle, Bourne’s “romantic wee ballet” is a gritty modernisation of the 19th-century classic La Sylphide.

Scottish Ballet, Highland Fling
Scottish Ballet, Highland Fling

Bourne’s adaptation follows protagonist James’ demise as his lust for the sprite-like Sylph leads him to his death, but the basic plot is where the similarities between the two ballets end. While the original is set in the idyllic Scottish countryside, Highland Fling takes place on a Glaswegian council estate and James, traditionally a naïve crofter, is now an unemployed shipyard worker who enjoys clubbing and illicit drug use. Even the Sylph has been transformed into a sinister, drug-fuelled hallucination, and not many ballets can claim to open in the gents’ toilet of a sleazy nightclub.

In all of his works, Bourne treats the performance elements as equally important to technical dance ability, and his own company, New Adventures, contains dancers as renowned for their acting skills as for their dancing. This Scottish Ballet production of Highland Fling, originally produced in 1994, is the first time that a full-length Bourne work has been seen outside his own company. It is a fitting choice of cast – Scottish Ballet already has a reputation for strong characterisation and versatility (especially after their stunning production of A Streetcar Named Desire last year).

Christopher Harrison’s performance of James uses the intricate, complex choreography to portray a conflicted, thuggish young man, whose disillusion with his life leads him to block out his negative feelings with drugs. Slumped in a bathroom urinal on the night before his wedding, he’s approached by a ghostly Sylph (played by Sophie Martin). A fun nightclub scene, almost musical theatre in style, follows. The audience is instantly transported to a Saturday night in Glasgow – complete with brief nudity, raging girlfriends, pill-popping, punch-ups and sex in a urinal.

The “Morning After” scene has James and his hungover friends stumbling around their apartment, which is garishly decorated with as much tartan kitsch as can be fitted onto the stage. Bleary-eyed, they prepare for the upcoming wedding celebrations, but James oblivious to the chaos around him dances with the Sylph. After a comedic, character-driven first act – even the minor roles have their own quirks and distinct personalities – the ballet’s tone darkens drastically as James flings himself out of an apartment window after the Sylph.

Once the audience has been drawn in by the first act’s characters, comedy and cultural references, they are exposed to the hauntingly beautiful second half, which is told almost exclusively through dance. In Highland Fling, the immortal realm is a forest glade, just outside the council estate, littered with dustbins, a discarded armchair, an abandoned swing-park and a disused car. It’s populated by creepy, winged Sylphs in ghostly white rags with terrifying choreography – contorted body-movements and heavy breathing.

Disaster follows: James, still infatuated with Sophie Martin’s Sylph, convinces her to leave the ethereal realm and return with him to the mortal one. In one of the sweetest moments in the ballet, the Sylph rushes to fetch a little white suitcase, waves goodbye to her fellow Sylphs, takes James’ hand and the pair rush offstage – but not before James has acquired a huge pair of shears from the dustbins.

Bloodstained and wingless, the Sylph hobbles around the stage, trying to emulate the beautiful balletic movements of the other spirits before finally collapsing, lifeless, in a heap. James, overcome with grief and guilt, commits suicide. Talk about mood whiplash!

Never before have I been to a ballet where the audience actually clapped in time to the music during the bows but, in keeping with the overture, another Scottish secular favourite was played as exit music. I found myself dancing down the street on the way home singing “Mary, My Scot’s Bluebell” at the top of my voice. It was a hilarious, fun, enjoyable evening and if you get the chance to go and see Highland Fling, I highly recommend you do.

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