After Matthew Bourne's riotously successful re-make of The Nutcracker two years ago, the temptation to hit on another 19th-century classic must have been irresistible. But what makes this second project more than a repeat formula is its obvious care for the original. The best of its updates aren't parodies but images that enlarge your sense of the 1832 ballet.
Jamie is engaged to the pretty but predictable Effie whose dullness is here caught for all time in the angora bolero she wears for her wedding day. The reliable Gurn (in love with Effie) becomes a scurrying New Man, anxious to tidy Jamie's flat after the booze and partying of the night before. And the Sylph's motive for haunting Jamie isn't just love, it's also contempt for the boring ordinariness of his life - as she yanks his Bay City Rollers poster from the wall and scatters the crumbs from his cereal packet.
Bourne tells the story of a man tormented by supernatural love in an often joyous mix of modes. Crude vernacular (a head butt, a mugged leer) slides into classical mime while Scottish jigs steal into a bop. The extended dance passages of Act 2, where Jamie frolics with a flock of sylphs, develop some stunningly hybrid phrases. The drifting arms of Romantic ballet mix with awkward shuffling legs; deft embroideries of steps are succeeded by sprawling falls. Within this lunatic language the sylphs come across as forlorn, funny and dislocated.
The cast of seven all give perfectly judged comic performances, although at times their actual dancing is ragged. The production's only major flaw is, in fact, that it needs a tidy up. In Act 1, Lez Brotherston's exemplary designs set up a rich stock of jokes and Bourne's choreography sometimes falls over itself trying to supply as many physical gags. More seriously, its dance material often gets out of focus.
One of the defining qualities of 19th-century ballet is its precise lines and Bourne needs to echo that clarity more often, needs to let his jokes sharpen themselves on some cleanly edged dancing.
The magic of Act 2 would also be enhanced by the kind of hallucinatorily ordered dance that you get in Bayadere or Giselle - even though its closing moments triumph through brute realism. As in the original, Jamie fails to grasp that his ideal love is unattainable - if he tries to make the Sylph human he kills her. Bourne thus gives us a horribly vivid new take on the old Romantic dilemma as Jamie lovingly snips off the Sylph's wings with shears and then has to watch her twitching bloodily to death.
Lilian Baylis Theatre, Rosebery Ave, London EC1 (071-278 8916). To 28 MayReuse content