DANCE / Journey of a kilted jilter

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The Independent Culture
CHASING unattainable dreams in exotic settings. This is the stuff of Romantic ballets such as La Sylphide and Giselle. Matthew Bourne, artistic director of Adventures in Motion Pictures, has selected La Sylphide for the zany treatment he gave The Nutcracker, a recent smash hit. In Highland Fling, the reworked title for the Scottish ballet, Bourne keeps the original story, but slaps it about with irreverent wit. James, a crofter, is transformed into a kilt-wearing, drug-abusing, jobless welder who is lured from his wedding by a sylphide (or sprite). With not so much as a nod in the direction of his jilted bride, he tries to possess the sprite as enthusiastically as a bag of Ecstasy.

The first act is set in James's flat on a working-class Glasgow estate. It may be exotic to James - there is enough tartan wallpaper to cover the country - but not to his friends, who decide to purge the place of beer cans and dirty washing in time for James's big day. As a character, James (Scott Ambler) is a bit of mess. So too is Act 1. The work was intended for small-scale venues, hence its appearance last week in the tiny Lilian Baylis studio theatre. But by the time Bourne's creative juices had stopped flowing, it could have filled a bigger stage. Sixties girls, including a tart in micro-mini, and boys in nerdish tartan suits had to cram themselves into mighty set-pieces of fast, foot-flying dance. Those in the front row found themselves with feather dusters up their noses. The rest of us were swamped by undistilled ideas that made a persuasive case for less being more.

As in Romantic ballets, the second act is supposedly ethereal. Here the twinkling Glasgow skyline at dusk provides relief from the tartan, if nothing else. Enter the sylphides, men and women in ragged dresses and ghoulish painted faces with Pierrot eyes. They assume exaggerated poses; hips jut out and arms reach for imaginary glasses of champagne. In this half, Bourne introduces a wonderful conceit: the corps becomes a Greek chorus that acts as James's spiritual guide. With arms crossed and hands fluttering like flags, the dancers urge James on in his pursuit of the sprite (a dainty Maxine Fone). When he clips her wings, and the life drains out of her, the chorus crumples in sympathy. Where the first act is a confusing and overbearing collage, the second half travels in a clear line, and rescues the work.

Scott Ambler as the hapless James is the star of the show. With a natural gift for comedy, he is a daffy, startled rabbit, whether slumped in a stupor at his stag night or scooping up the flowers the sylph tosses over her shoulder. He creates a character more acted upon than acting, which gives the climax an unexpected edge: he seems genuinely surprised that his actions have resulted in the loss of his ideal love as well as his bride.

Bourne has shown himself to be a fiend of footwork, creating elaborate phrases that move at the speed of light. Highland Fling is his most dancerly work, and defies past rebukes that his choreographic vocabulary is limited. If he cleans up the first act, he may well have another very funny hit on his hands.

Bourne formed AMP in 1988. Two years previously he was a dancer with Transitions, the professional training company run by the Laban Centre that specialises in short works by developing artists. The company is celebrating its tenth anniversary with a mixed programme that came to the Bloomsbury Theatre last week. The young dancers are as fresh as they are versatile, switching effortlessly from characters like the wallies in Mark Murphy's Blind Date to lyrical interpreters of Richard Alston's elegant Weep No More to Billie Holiday. They even look good being ugly in Santiago Sempere's Three Dancers for Shiva as they stamp flat feet and bob jelly-necks in convulsive jerks.

While the pieces are diverse, the tone in the second half is rather earnest. Murphy's Blind Date, set to Nick Cave, stands out because it is raucous fun. He turns the Cilla Black game show into a paradise for serial monogamists - the man goes for No 1 and Nos 2 and 3 - and releases the emotional tensions in a physical rough-and-tumble. The seducer seems to say: 'I'll balance on your hip if you'll balance on mine.' If these young dancers are the performers of tomorrow, there is a lot to look forward to.

'Highland Fling': Lilian Baylis Theatre (behind Sadler's Wells), EC1, 071-278-8916, to 28 May.