Ins and outs of Scottish Highland dancing

BALLET La Sylphide, Woking; Highland Fling, The Place, London

Why isn't La Sylphide performed more often? Created in 1832 by Filippo Taglioni to showcase his daughter Marie's revolutionary pointe- work, the ballet was reworked in 1836 by the Danish romantic Auguste Bournonville and it is this version that usually survives today. Or does it? You can see it regularly in Paris or New York or Copenhagen, but this jewel of the romantic repertoire hasn't adorned the London stage since ENB last did it in 1989. Scottish Ballet are currently touring with a production that reminds us why this neglect is such a scandal.

The lean, two-act tale tells of James, a young Scottish bridegroom beguiled by a passing Sylph on the eve of his wedding. A local hag brews an enchanted scarf which James believes will bind the elusive Sylph to him - big mistake. Scottish Ballet has performed the work since 1973 and the current restaging is by the former Royal Danish ballerina Sorella Englund. On Wednesday, Johan Kobborg, a young Danish virtuoso, acted the role of James with eagerness and melancholy and danced it with a brilliance that few British dancers could match. His partner was fellow guest Tamara Rojo, who imbued the Sylph with a mixture of mischief and other-worldly innocence. The role of the vengeful crone Madge often degenerates into ham, but Sorella Englund conveyed the spite and menace of the character with an air of normality. Although eccentric, she would not be out of place at a Highland wedding - like a ghastly auntie who always gets legless but has to be invited. The corps formed Bournonville's sculptural ensembles - as deft and artful as a clutch of cherubs on a ceiling.

These treats seemed a tiny bit wasted on Woking. Wednesday's audience was thin and Kobborg's performance, which would have blown the socks off Covent Garden, was greeted with village-cricket applause. The boneheadedness of this response was highlighted by the knicker-wetting screams greeting the evening's other piece, Robert North's butch ballet Troy Game.

Matthew Bourne's 1994 version of La Sylphide might have gone down better. Highland Fling relocates the ballet to an absurdly plaid pad in a Glasgow high-rise, and the Sylph is a grungy waif who symbolises the anarchic pleasures of James's chemical dependence. Her hands may be demurely crossed but they are pawing at her crotch.

The second act has worn better than the first. Bourne's five grubby sylphs show distinct flashes of what he would later achieve with his corps of male swans, and we glimpse the choreographer's ability to flip from farce to tragedy. Bournonville's Sylph dies as the baleful scarf enfolds her and the fairy wings drop from her waist. It's a terrible moment, but its full impact requires an audience in tune with the romantic sensibilities and able to appreciate the tragic loss of immortality. Bourne's Sylph dies when James, eager for gratification, bloodily amputates her wings, a coup de theatre that takes a short cut to our emotions.

`Highland Fling': tonight, The Place, London WC1 (387 0031); then Wed- Sat, Midlands Art Centre, Birmingham (0121-440 3838). Scottish Ballet double-bill: 29 Apr-3 May, The Swan, High Wycombe (01494-512000); 20-24 May, The Lyceum, Sheffield (0114 276 9922)

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