Matthew Bourne’s “Highland Fling” by Larry Billman in Japan

10th July 2005
Yesterday Tomo (my wife) and I went to see a matinee of “Highland Fling” here in Tokyo. I was not sure of what to expect, as “La Sylphide” is not a work I am familiar with. I have probably seen more “excerpts” from the original ballet and doubt if I have ever seen it in its entirety. I had to go “online” to familiarize myself with it. Homework.

Once again, Matthew Bourne rocked our tiny world. He made us laugh, feel, think – and eventually reduced us to tears. Something I was not expecting. But, with Bourne, he seems to trigger our tear-ducts every time. He can wipe the smile off my face with a punch in the belly.

This piece is a “re-worked” version of the original 1994 production. It has more dancers (11 – instead of 7) and I immediately could understand why Bourne himself called it “Trainspotting – The Ballet.” In its very opening in the restrooms of a “Highland Fling” club, we are introduced to our “Hero” – falling down drunk and swallowing drugs, eventually collapsing into a urinal. “No dear, this is not a Tutu and En Pointe piece.” Thanks Matthew for slapping us in the face and waking us up. Lez Brotherston’s designs are miraculous. And Paule Constable’s lighting makes it all glow. Bourne has gathered other artists around him and not let it disintegrate into a One Man Show.

The entire piece is smart, ironic and funny. And the way that Bourne “Samples” (not unlike today’s music) ideas, images and even other music is brilliant. The use of the soundtrack of the 1954 MGM musical version of “Brigadoon” as the droning TV in the house where the hero and his pals are recovering from a night of debauchery made me laugh out loud. “Once in the Highlands, the Highlands of Scotland, two weary hunters lost their way…”

The cast was superb. Although Will Kemp, today’s “Hunk of Choice” was not dancing the leading role of “James” at the performance we saw, it did not matter. Adam Galbraith was superb being bold and strong and tall and spiky-haired. The longest legs I have ever seen in a kilt. Kerry Biggin as “The Sylph” reminded me of Gelsey Kirkland, only she is allowed to be brasher, trashier, sexier and eventually heart-breaking. There is a lot of Disney’s “Tinkerbelle” in her: Selfish, devilish, maddening and yet vulnerable. If Bourne had asked me to “Clap if you believe in Fairies,” I would have. Bourne’s works are about the “Work” – and, although original cast members like Adam Cooper have been given a ticket to fame – I have yet to see a dance work by Bourne in which the cast did not meet-and-match the challenges. He is creating an entire generation of acting dancers who will be allowed to go nearly anywhere they want to in contemporary entertainment.

About the choreography: okay, it is not Balanchine, nor Ashton nor Petipa. There are no miraculous examples of technique. Only miracles of acting dancers. The party dance after the wedding in Act One looks and feels like musical theater. It soars and swirls and uses contemporary dance movements to keep reminding us where we are. The only thing missing is that they don’t sing. And we expect them to at any minute. I believe that Bourne is the Choreographer-Director the musical theatre world has been waiting for. He is Jerome Robbins (the seamless and soaring movement driving the story and illuminating the characters)/Gower Champion (the unabashed theatricality)/Bob Fosse (the dark sensuality)/Tommy Tune (channeling the best bits and pieces of our theatrical past) combined. With Bourne’s success in “Mary Poppins,” I am hoping that producers recognize his gift and let him help the musical theatre out of its doldrums. I’ve heard that he may be working on revival of “Pal Joey.” And if anyone can find the power in that piece and translate it to today’s audiences, it is Bourne. “Pal Joey” has had a difficult time transcending the ages. It made a star of Gene Kelly when originally produced and even Fosse made it work in a revival. But its “appeal” has always depended on the star power of the leading player. As it is basically about a sleaze-bag, gigolo huckster, I believe Bourne could find the pieces to make us care.

The second act in the abandoned “Glade” reminded me of Bourne’s “Swans.” Other-worldly, funny, graceful and scary. These “Fairies” would eat you. The ending is devastating and I will not spoil it for those who have not seen it. Be prepared to have your breath taken away and your tear-ducts switched to “On.”

The final “picture” makes me realize that Matthew must have been inspired by “Peter Pan.” “Swan Lake,” “The Nutcracker” and “Highland Fling” all end in a window – that portal through which mortals can be immortal.

Japanese audiences are not demonstrative. They usually clap along to a cheerful, up-tempo Finale. He didn’t need that. The (primarily) Japanese females were on their feet for a genuine standing-ovation. Now THAT’S hard to earn.

In so many words here on menwhodanced, it is evident that the world is seeking that Dancing Place. Keep leading us Mr. Bourne. I will follow you anywhere.