'Highland Fling' for Hong Kong's ballet fans

Matthew Bourne's 'Highland Fling' put grit in ballet. Now he is bringing an updated version to Hong Kong, writes Victoria Finlay

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 February, 2014, 6:47pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 February, 2014, 6:47pm

When English ballet choreographer Matthew Bourne first introduced the Scottish Ballet company to his Highland Fling, some of the early rehearsals were rather unusual: they involved going out into the rougher bits of Glasgow and getting drunk. "They were encouraged to go drinking and have late nights," Bourne says.

Although all the dancers joined in, in the end, "it took a while for them to do it because it's not what ballet dancers do".

For me it's much stronger if you place beauty within an ugly world
Matthew Bourne 

Highland Fling, which is making its debut in Hong Kong on February 21 as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival, is a version of the classical ballet La Sylphide. It is the story of a young man, James, who is on the eve of marrying his childhood sweetheart. But then a sylph appears - a sweet apparition and a promise of quite another future. He is entranced by this romantic vision, and he follows her into the forest instead of pursuing his bride. Then something terrible happens.

The 1836 original begins in a Scottish farmhouse. In Bourne's hands, it begins in a men's toilet in Glasgow. "There's lots of graffiti," the choreographer says. "And a heart with the names of James and his girlfriend Effie painted on the wall. And when the sylph appears to James from above the urinal, he's collapsed. He's high on something and the world appears in one way to him. Then this vision of beauty turns up and everything changes … and it becomes more dangerous. For me it's much stronger if you place beauty within an ugly world."

Bourne decided to adapt La Sylphide after touring Scotland with his company. "I loved that time," he says. "We were sharing rooms in bed and breakfasts, and rolling out the dance floor and ironing our own costumes before each show. It was a lot of fun.

"I'd not been to Scotland before and I sort of fell in love with it. And it struck me that if there's anywhere a story with any kind of supernatural could take place it would be there."

Bourne started the process by looking for cultural references in films, books and even in art galleries.

"For a dance company we do more research than most. We get the dancers involved: they're required to read books, watch films and bring their own inspiration to create their characters," he says.

"Another form of research for me is the history of dance. I like to think that if you know La Sylphide very well, then you'll also enjoy what I've done with it."

He really went for the theme of Scottishness. "I included everything to do with Scotland I could think of." So there's Auld Lang Syne added to the original score, a flash of the 1954 MGM musical Brigadoon playing on a television set, and plenty of visual references to the award-winning 1993 novel Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh about heroin addicts in Edinburgh.

When Bourne created this piece in 1994 (he updated it last year) he was little known: his company was just one of several British dance companies that would go on tours with Arts Council grants. However, a year later, in 1995, he would create a new choreography for Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, with all male swans, when every Swan Lake before that had all female swans.

And suddenly everyone in the dance and theatre world had heard the name of Matthew Bourne.

"When people who know my Swan Lake see Highland Fling, they'll see the beginnings of a lot of elements of Swan Lake," he says.

The most noticeable is that the sylphs are played by both men and women where the original has them as all female.

"It was partly due to the small number of people in the company," Bourne says. "There were only seven dancers [there are twice that number in the Scottish Ballet version] and so to be able to tell the story all the characters in the first half had to become sylphs in the second half."

Another link between the works is that Highland Fling's success is due in part to the way it moves from naughty wit to awful tragedy.

"At the end of Highland Fling the whole thing turns quite shockingly bad," says Bourne, who remembers how the audience was touched by its ending. "And I wanted to do more of that … which was one of the reasons why I chose to do Swan Lake."

That work's influence was far-reaching. In 2000, the blockbuster British film Billy Elliot came out. It was about a boy growing up in a tough mining town in the 1980s, wanting to be a ballet dancer despite his father's wishes. And it ended with Billy, now grown up, performing as one of the swans in Bourne's production.

"I was sent the script to look at about two years before it was made," Bourne says. "I read it, loved it, but I didn't like the original ending because he ended being the prince, and I thought it was a shame that he should end up in a supporting role, and wouldn't it be more exciting if he was more of a rebel, who'd left normal ballet and joined another sort of company."

Bourne suggested Billy might join the iconoclastic Michael Clark modern dance company, or that "maybe he could be the swan in our Swan Lake". Two years later, director Stephen Daldry called Bourne. "He said: 'We like that idea you had two years ago … and can we come and film?'" That decision has made Bourne famous, even among people who never go to ballets.

Curiously, one of the newest arrivals in Bourne's company is Liam Mower, who in 2005, at the age of 12, was one of the three original Billys in the musical. And now at 21, he has just taken on the role of the prince in Bourne's Swan Lake at Sadler's Wells.

"He's gone from being in the show as Billy to joining the company and being in my Swan Lake, just like Billy did," Bourne says. "So really, if you think about it, he's like life imitating art."

When Bourne's Highland Fling and Swan Lake were first performed, they were both iconoclastic and much was made of how some members of the audience walked out in disgust. Now, 20 and 19 years later, people are assuming that anything Bourne creates is going to be iconoclastic, which puts a different kind of pressure on him.

"It's true - Swan Lake with men has become the norm for some people," the choreographer says. "Actually there are quite a lot of people who saw our version first. Then they see another production and they find it odd. They wonder why there are women in it."

Highland Fling: Scottish Ballet , Auditorium, Sha Tin Town Hall, Fri-Feb 23, 7.30pm, Feb 23 also 2.30pm