Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Scottish Ballet's "Highland Fling" in Gurn and Effie Land

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Scottish Ballet  Highland Fling Atlantis Leisure Centre, Oban 29 April 2018 19:30

Almost exactly a year ago I saw Ballet Central perform the greater part of the second act of Highland Fling at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre. I reviewed the performance in Triumphant 1 May 2018. In that review I wrote that I had not always been a fan of Sir Matthew Bourne but I loved that work.  I tweeted that I would love to see the full work.  Sir Matthew noticed my tweet and replied that Scottish Ballet would perform Highland Fling again this year adding that I would have to go to Scotland to see it as if a trip to that enchanting country could ever be an imposition.

Taking Sir Matthew's advice I chose to see it in Oban because that is the only venue on Scottish Ballet's tour that is actually in the Highlands.  Well, to be accurate, Oban is a port with many of the attractions and facilities of much larger towns but hills and mountains surround it. Oban is famous for its fish and chips (see Moira Kerr  Rick Stein, two rival fish and chip shops and bitter battle of the signs that has left behind a very bad taste 19 June 2013 Mail Online).  I spotted an abundance of purveyors of that delicacy near the waterfront and was looking for somewhere to park when I spotted a small group of individuals with the words "Scottish Ballet" emblazoned on their backs.

I wound down the window and greeted them cordially - probably gushingly.  Acknowledging my greetings and compliments with exceptional grace they asked me whether I was going to the pre-performance talk that was due to start in 15 minutes. I had not been aware of that talk and abandoned my quest for supper.  I made my way to the Atlantis Leisure Centre where Highland Fling was to be performed.

The talk was chaired by the education officer who asked how many of us had seen a performance by Scottish Ballet.  A few hands rose including mine.  She then asked whether any of us had seen a work by Sir Matthew Bourne.  A much larger clump of hands rose though still a minority of the room. She asked which works those individuals had seen and the names Cinderella, The Red Shoes and Swan Lake ran out.  She told us the story of August Bournonville's La Sylphide and then Sir Matthew's adaptation.  She introduced us to the rehearsal director who mentioned some of the technical aspects of the choreography. One big difference was the absence of pointe work. The women perform in bare feet. "Surely that is something to be welcomed" the education officer suggested but apparently not because the rehearsal director replied that dancing without shoes gives rise to other problems.

There was a short Q & A in which I observed that La Sylphide was performed regularly abroad but infrequently here. "Surely it should be Scotland's national ballet if not the United Kingdom's" I suggested.  This year is different in that English National Ballet has a beautiful production which I saw in Manchester (see Always Something Special from English National Ballet: La Sylphide with Song of the Earth 18 Nov 2017) and London (see Tamara Rojo at Last! Le Jeune Homme et la Mort and La Sylphide 22 Jan 2018) but they have yet to perform it in Scotland.  The speakers speculated on possible reasons and referred me to Christopher Hampson who was to give a post performance talk.

One of the advantages of attending the pre-performance talk was to be allocated reserved seats in the first few rows of the auditorium.  I bagged what was probably the best seat in the house, namely the centre of the fifth row. The stage was set for the opening scene, namely the ladies' and gents' of the "Highland Fling Social Club" located somewhere like Castlemilk or Drumchapel.  On the wall above the urinal appeared a heart with "James 4 Effie".  As the audience took their seats we were regaled with all the songs we used to sing at Celtic Society ceilidhs when I was at St Andrews such as Cambletown Loch and Wild Rover.  Even though I am a proud Mancunienne I know all the words to all those songs and can't hear them without tears welling up.

The work opened with a kilted James (Nicholas Shoesmith) staggering into the gents' bog appearing to snort some sort of hallucinogenic substance and collapsing against the wall of the urinal.  "This gives a whole new meaning to the phrase 'pas de bourré'" I thought to  myself ("bourré" meaning "to have a skinful" among other things). A sylph (Sophie Martin) clambered through the venting and tries to revive the recumbent James.  Then the other revellers pile into their respective loos. The girls in their finery with Effie (Roseanna Leney) wearing head boppers.

My favourite character in Bournonville's ballet is Madge, the witch,  She appears as an old bag lady who tries to warm herself by the fire.  James, the laird, meanly sends her packing.  That is why she has it in for him. She gets her own back for her rough treatment by poisoning a scarf that she sells to James. James gives it to the sylph whose wings fall off the moment she puts it on.  Madge (Grace Paulley)  is very different in Sir Matt's version.  She is an attractive young woman who has the hots for James.  There is no coven scene in Highland Fling though Madge does quite enough mischief with tarot cards. She predicts that Gurn (Barnaby Rook Bishop) will hook up with Effie which is what happens in the end in both Bournonville and Bourne versions.

I can be very prickly when a well loved ballet is reworked the wrong way (see Up the Swannee 17 March 2018 and Akram Khan's Giselle 28 Sept 2016) though I can be very sweet when it is done well as Ted Brandsen did with Coppelia (see Brandsen's Coppelia  12 Dec 2016) and David Dawson with Swan Lake (see Empire Blanc: Dawson's Swan Lake. 4 June 2016). On the whole I think Bourrne got it right, For a start, I appreciated his calling his work something other than La Sylphide.  I think I would have been kinder and more receptive to Nixon and Khan had they done the same with their works. There are a few git wrenching moments in Bourne like the sylph staggering on stage with a bloody back and James's hands, arms and shears dripping in the red stuff and, in a different way, James's collapsing in the wee. But then wrenching a few guts was probably the object of the exercise.

I am glad that Sir Matt used Løvenskiold's score. I love that music.  So much better than anything Adam, Delibes or Minkus ever wrote.  Second only to Tchaikovsky in my book.  I may be imagining things but I thought I spotted some quotations from Giselle in his choreography. The sylph tossed some flowers at James just as Giselle does in act 2. The death scene where the sylph tries to keep going despite her wound just as Giselle rises to her feet and staggers briefly before collapsing.  The way the sylphs turned on James after they had carried away their dying companion reminded me very much of the revenge of the wilis.

During the interval I glimpsed Christopher Hampson whom I had met in Newcastle after Hansel and Gretel (see Hansel and Gretel - a bit like falling in love 4 Feb 2017) and at a talk he gave to the London Ballet Circle.  I wondered whether he would remember me and, to my delight, he did.  He thanked me for coming to the show and I thanked him for making a dream come true. He looked puzzled so I told him that ever since I saw La Sylphide back in 1970 I had longed to see a version of it in Scotland.  I told him that I had even asked his great predecessor, Peter Darrell, to consider staging that work when Scottish Theatre Ballet (as it was then called) performed in the Buchanan theatre at St Andrews on 15 Feb 1971.

Hampson discussed that topic in a talk that he gave with Nicholas Shoesmith and Sophie Martin after the show. He stressed that Scottish Ballet's tradition had always been to create new work.  Highland Fling had been created by one of our greatest living choreographers.  I hasten to add (and I intend no sycophancy) that so, too, is Hampson.  He said it was certainly possible that a new version of La Sylphide might one day be created.  If it is, the creator of a beautiful Cinderella and a gorgeous Hansel and Gretel would be just the man to do it,

I don't think that I have every been in the company of a more appreciative audience than the crowd n the Atlantis Leisure Centre on Sunday night.  The dancers took their bows to the strains of "I love a lassie" to which the audience clapped in time.  It was a brilliant performance.  The dancers sparked the crowd and the crowd fired the dancers.  Many members of the audience had travelled enormous distances.  The chappy on my right had driven all the way from Nottinghamshire.  A lady in the refreshments queue told me that she had come from Fionnphort which is opposite Iona.  To get to Oban she would have had to drive along a bumpy single carriageway road to Craignure and then take the Macbrayne ferry. 

At the pre-performance talk the education officer said that education and outreach was at least as important as performance.  A company that thinks like that is very, very special.

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