Scottish Ballet’s Insight events offer the public the chance to learn more about the company. This event, geared around “romantic wee ballet” Highland Fling, was a chance to see costumes, chat to dancers and watch them warming up before a Saturday matinee.
It’s exhausting just watching the warm-up but the dancers look relaxed and happy on stage. They were just about to finish a successful debut and run at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal, before the whole show went on tour to Inverness, Aberdeen and Edinburgh.
At an informal get together in the theatre, Emma Jane McHendry, one of Scottish Ballet’s education officers, ran through a synopsis of Highland Fling and the conception of the Matthew Bourne production, originally produced in 1994.
Award-winning choreographer Bourne does not give his work away lightly, although he has contributed sections to various sources in the past, this is the first time he has delivered a whole production. It’s a coup for Scottish Ballet and understandably, they are delighted.
Bourne is known for slightly off-the-wall and edgy ballets. Based on La Sylphide by Herman Severin Lovenskjold, Highland Fling was conceived after Bourne visited Scotland and became captivated by the scenery, mystery and folklore. He saw a perfect world for recreating mythical sylph and fairylike creatures. So you might think he would set it among the heather, hills and forests of the north. But no, Bourne chose a gritty and perhaps more realistic setting. This production has more in common with Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting than the magic of Brig-a-Doon.
Set in 1980s Glasgow, enter the world of night clubs, hedonistic drinking and hazy drug-fuelled evenings, and the eve of Effie and James wedding.
James collapses in a toilet in a drug/drink induced haze on his stag night and it’s his first introduction to the strange seductive sylph like creature who will overtake his life.
At the talk Emma runs through the characters. They are an eclectic bunch, and easily identifiable. Emma claimed most of these characters could easily be found around the streets of Glasgow on a Saturday night.
We are shown a selection of costumes designed by Lez Brotherston. There’s lots of tartan, but contemporary and edgy, not twee. The sylph costumes in particular have a designer look to them. Pale grey graffiti style kilts and sheath dresses with raggedly ripped edging.
Respect also goes to dancers Owen Thorne and Christopher Harrison, who alternate to play the part of James. They have to dance while wearing a heavy kilt and full Highland dress. Owen admitted dancing in full Highland dress is a very sweaty affair, and tricky, with most problems stemming from a bouncing sporran. Also very cute are the white sylph wings, made of foam.
As the dancers rehearse in their stripped down training gear you get the chance to appreciate their litheness, agility and strength.
Ballet seems to be moving with the times and modernizing. Something Owen admits has to be done. Like Scottish Ballet’s production A Streetcar Named Desire, Highland Fling involves a lot of acting. It’s a skill dancers are getting used to. There will always be a place for traditional ballets like Swan Lake, but nowadays dancers have more skills to draw on. It’s about being more relevant says Owen. And there are many aspects of Highland Fling, both in situations and characters that the audience will recognize and relate to.
Sometimes despite the best efforts to display the nuances of a character, unexpected things get in the way, like make-up. Bethany spent ages working on her facial expressions to play the sylph by flashing lots of dramatic eyes, only to realise that no-one could see her efforts. The sylphs wear heavy make-up and their eyes are blackened.
The dancers had to really get into their roles by coming up with a whole back story of their character, right down to their likes and dislikes. As the roles are shared, with the dancers interchanging, they worked with their “other half” on character development.
Owen worked with Christopher Harrison to bring James to life, who was seen as slightly different from the rest of the cast. He’s the only one without make-up. It’s as if his soul is bare and exposed under the spotlights.
James is a very human character, and therefore flawed. He may take drugs, drink, mistreat his fiancé, and succumb to temptation, but the audience still has to like him. The dancers have the job of making him likeable, despite his failings.
Like Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in Mad Men or Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in House of Cards – characters you probably shouldn’t like, but you do.
It’s a ballet that ramps up the Scottishness and the first half in particular is good fun. There’s a house adorned with tartan wallpaper, which has photos of Sean Connery, The Krankies and Annie Lennox hanging on the walls. The characters drink from cans of Irn Bru and James reads the Daily Record newspaper.
Wedding preparations are underway amid a few love complications. James’s tarot-card-reading ex Madge is also his drug dealer, Gurn is a born again Christian who wears a t-shirt saying Jesus Loves Me, but he only has eyes for Effie. Meanwhile James is obsessed with the mysterious sylph who keeps haunting him.
After the merriment of the first act, the second half takes on a much darker hue. We move into seductive Sylph land, a remote wasteland with the familiar features of Glasgow’s Clydeside just visible in the distance.
Here we see the sylphs at play, they are catlike and full of impish playful movements. Like James, we are drawn into their world. But once he gets what he wants, it’s not enough and he wants more.
Don’t expect a swirling Scottish shin-dig finale because tragedy ensues leading to a dramatic and tearful conclusion.
Highland Fling is touring:
16-18 May 2013 His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen
22-25 May 2013 Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
For more information see: Scottish Ballet website