Highland Fling

High roads, low roads - MacBourne takes them all

Ladies and gentlemen, Pina Bausch has left the building. Although the high priestess of contemporary dance-theatre and Matthew Bourne are both director/ choreographers, not only are their names rarely in the same sentence, their work looks as if it comes from different galaxies.

Ladies and gentlemen, Pina Bausch has left the building. Although the high priestess of contemporary dance-theatre and Matthew Bourne are both director/ choreographers, not only are their names rarely in the same sentence, their work looks as if it comes from different galaxies.

Bausch once declared she is "not interested in how people move, but what moves them". The secret of Bourne's work is that he is interested in what moves audiences. This is not to be confused with pandering to safe, popular taste. For starters, people who thought they wouldn't be caught dead at dance have succumbed to its visceral thrill via the sheer drama of Bourne's best work.

No one has yet choreographed Trainspotting (I know everyone's looking for youth audiences but, please, no) but you might imagine that's what you're in for with the initial image of Highland Fling. It opens in a Glasgow urinal with a man collapsing in a drug-induced haze. But Bourne's subtitle is "a romantic wee ballet" and that's exactly what's on offer here.

The Scottish setting and the appearance of a winged sylph alert balletomanes to the fact that this is a reworking of La Sylphide, one of the oldest ballets in the repertoire. And although Bourne appears to be taking liberties, he actually remains close to the original story of a bridegroom who comes to a sticky end when he jilts his childhood sweetheart on their wedding day to run off with a sylph.

The darker side of the story is largely reserved for the second act, a reflection both of the exposition and Herman Lovenskøld's score, which only gradually deepens into grandeur. Prior to that, Bourne has fun choreographing stag-night shenanigans, with James, the chemically enhanced, kilted hero kicking off with abandon. In adjoining toilets the boys pose and the girls preen before getting together for a spot of dancing which swiftly spins off into lager-drinking, coke-snorting, sex-driven hedonism only steps away from a syncopated group grope. This is typical Bourne character-comedy, a style he learned from Frederick Ashton (although his mentor never choreographed head-butts).

Initially, Lez Brotherston's sets are very Hanna-Barbera-ish - all highly coloured, Fifties-style jaunty angularity - while his costumes are a Scots take on Nineties trash. (The piece was created in 1994 and this is its first major revival.) But by the over-hung morning-after-the-night-before, the look is definitely The Clash of The Tartans. Absolutely everything is plaid and none of it matches. Indeed, the whole show is so Scottish that the only thing you don't get is Moira Anderson and the White Heather Club. Even the choreography reels in everything from a Scots sword dance to what looks suspiciously like the Dashing White Sergeant.

James chases the impish sylph throughout the second half. Once captured, the two of them make love, yet James swiftly tires of her otherness and in order to possess her completely, shears off her wings. It's a genuinely shocking moment. She teeters onstage, her botched back awash with blood: the final scenes pack the punch which has hitherto been missing. This isn't Bourne's fault. His primary source is always the music and Lovenskøld is no Tchaikovsky.

Nonetheless, the closing scene, where James's now aged friends remember him - as they sit forlornly by the window from which he leaped to his death - is surprisingly moving. A touch of Peter Pan, maybe Edward Scissorhands. Now there's a good idea for a dance work. And that's exactly what Bourne's doing next.

'Highland Fling' is touring the UK. For details, visit www.new-adventures.net

Jenny Gilbert is away

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