Matthew Bourne’s signature wit is there in embryo in “Highland Fling,” a revival of the director-choreographer’s “La Sylphide” rewrite first seen in 1994, but without the emotional sustenance that has made Bourne’s name internationally, principally with his Tony-winning “Swan Lake.” Bourne completists owe it to themselves to catch this expanded “Fling” during its brief London run, or on a nationwide U.K. tour through May 14. But those wanting the affective kick of Bourne at his best may find themselves pondering a self-described “romantic wee ballet” that turns out to be bewilderingly low on feeling.
Bourne is virtually everywhere these days, adding to his cache of trophies with an Olivier Award several weeks ago for his choreography (with Stephen Mear) for “Mary Poppins.” There’s something to be said for having the full spectrum of his work on view, even if this is a larger “Highland Fling” (by four performers) than the seven-person company (headed by Scott Ambler) that visited the Donmar in the spring of 1995.
Is bigger necessarily better? Hard to say as a newcomer to this work, though one can imagine Ambler — sublime as the Prince in “Swan Lake” — getting more out of the smitten James, this ballet’s kilted hero, than James Leece (who resembles a more toothsome Clive Owen).
It’s possible, too, that with three dancers alternating several of the principal roles (among them, Will Kemp, who now has his own film career), the opening-night company at Sadler’s Wells hadn’t gelled to the same dizzying degree as the “Swan Lake” ensemble I caught at the same venue in January, near the end of its run.
The story and setting are much the same as “La Sylphide”; characteristically for Bourne, the specifics are what have changed. True to the template of this most defining (and oldest) of Romantic ballets, the Scotsman James is still seduced from marriage to his intended, Effie (Mikah Smillie), by a Sylph (Kerry Biggin) who leads him in the second act into a glade full of, you guessed it, Sylphides.
But unlike that 1832 forebear, James this time around is an out-of-work welder living in a Glasgow council flat, who inhabits a graffiti-strewn milieu of drugs, rampant sex and the occasional bared buttocks, against which the musical interpolations of “Brigadoon” are little more than a facetious joke. (“Auld Lang Syne” is heard later, amid “La Sylphide’s” usual Herman Lovenskiold score.) It’s little surprise, then, that over time “Highland Fling” has been referred to as the “Trainspotting” transcription of “La Sylphide,” even if Danny Boyle’s movie didn’t come out until after “Fling” had premiered.
Given such surroundings, you would scarcely expect an ethereal Sylph, and you’d be right. In Biggin’s perf, James’ enticement into the natural world is a wild-eyed, nearly vampiric presence whose devouring colleagues anticipate the no less lethal (male) swans that Bourne would bring to the stage the following year.
This Sylph’s Ariel-like mischief amplifies the gathering anxiety to the piece but undercuts any true feeling, and it’s hard to know what to make of a final image suggesting James has in some way become the Sylph: The meaning hovers no less vaporously than does James himself by the window. (There, too, one notes the way in which the ending of Bourne’s “Swan Lake,” with its looming black swan, builds on this one.)
Still, the satiric cut-and-thrust doesn’t outstay its welcome, and the first act, in particular, unfolds an often raunchy, rude scenario (this is Britain, so there are fart jokes) against a Lez Brotherston backdrop that is a riot of tartans and plaids. As choreographer, Bourne gets to work on wedding marches and laddish misbehavior, high-kicking hysteria and consuming loss.
If it took “Swan Lake” to deepen this impulse into something approaching a full-fledged sensibility, “Highland Fling” is best taken as just that — an aesthetic fling on the way to a then-burgeoning talent’s ongoing love affair.