A 'romantic wee ballet'

Matthew Bourne, Britain’s Mr Dance, brings his latest show, Highland Fling, to Norwich Theatre Royal this week. Sarah Hardy finds out more about this romantic wee ballet’ that is a real tartan triumph.

In the dancing world, Matthew Bourne has the Midas touch. His productions are more of events as people nowadays expect the unexpected from the country's leading dance impresario. His shows are always humorous, always quirky and always highly entertaining. He has nothing of the highbrow about him – he likes to entertain his audiences and they simply love him for it.

Just think of the impact his male version of Swan Lake had. It's now the world's longest-running ballet, and how other shows such as the homo-erotic Car Man and the witty Play Without Words (enjoyed by many in Norfolk last year) have fans queuing round the block for tickets.

His latest offering, a reworking or updating of his original 1994 ballet, Highland Fling, is a case of Trainspotting meeting Family Affairs.

Matthew enjoys revisiting and reworking pieces as he has now a bit more time and money to improve them. This show, for example, has several more dancers in it than the original but Matthew has kept to the 1980s setting so look out for a few shoulder pads and horrid leggings!

As you'd guess, this isn't a pretty, pretty ballet with a happy ending. Set in modern-day Glasgow, it looks at the life of unemployed welder turned party animal James, who likes a wee dram or two in his tenement. He's due to marry the lovely, but nagging, Effie – yet also has eyes for the vampy Madge.

Into his world of booze and drugs comes a winged sprite, a sylph, who James can never attain – something he fails to understand. He's lured to his death by her beguiling ways and that's only the beginning of his sufferings.

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So, the first half is harsh, uncompromising and full of social comment. It's brutal and in yer face with the main characters yearning for a way out of their miserable existences.

But the second half takes on more of the appearance of a traditional romantic ballet. Set in a moonlit forest glade, we have James searching for his love as the sylph and her chums close in. This is much more of an everyday ballet, with the dancers en pointe and there are some beautiful set pieces.

But the harshness remains and there's a gory and surprising finale – something you don't normally associate with a Bourne piece. “I found that I could make people cry as well as laugh,” he says.

You wouldn't especially know it but the piece is actually based on a legendary romantic ballet, La Sylphide, from the 19th century.

Matthew explains: “La Sylphide, with its Scottish setting and mixture of real and spirit characters, really appealed to me and its score was a revelation – wonderfully melodious, highly dramatic, witty, moving and of course, great music to dance to.”

James Leece plays the lead role of the beleaguered Glaswegian who falls under the spell of the unearthly siren. James, originally from Aberdeen, is one of the company's most experienced dancers as he's been with them for about five years.

You could well have spotted him in the Nutcracker when it came to Norwich last year and he has also had lead roles in the Car Man and Swan Lake.

He explains: “We had about four weeks' rehearsal for this piece which isn't really that much so you have to cram it in.”

He enjoys working with Matthew, saying: “Yes, he's always very diplomatic with his dancers and likes to hear our views. He likes us to develop the characters as best we can.”

James, who trained with the Royal Ballet, says that this show is particularly physical, adding: “It's just as well that it's not too long!”

Matthew, aged 45, remains modest and unassuming. From the East End of London, he came to ballet late in life. He only started to train as a dancer when he was 22, after working in the bookshop and as an usher at the Royal National Theatre in London. He trained at the forward-thinking Laban Centre in the capital and quickly established his own company to perform his pieces. His final performance as a dancer was as the Private Secretary in the Broadway production of Swan Lake in January 1999.

He was the artistic director of Adventures in Motion Pictures from 1987 until 2002 when he set up New Adventures which has quickly established itself as one of the country's top dance companies.

Always a big fan of music and musicals (the first film he remembers enjoying was the Sound of Music), Matthew also works with Sir Cameron Mackintosh on some of his lavish London productions, including Oliver, My Fair Lady (with Martine McCutcheon) and South Pacific.

Most recently, he has co-directed (with Richard Eyre), the award-winning Mary Poppins in the West End – another MacKintosh triumph. But his next project is his own adaptation of Tim Burton's film Edward Scissorhands, which we await with pleasure. t

t Highland Fling opens at Norwich Theatre Royal on Tuesday May 10 and runs until Saturday May 14. Tickets are priced from £5, more details are available on 01603 630000.

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