Matthew Bourne on the Scottish Ballet’s Highland Fling

‘GOOD stroppy walks, everyone,” says Matthew Bourne with a smile. The dancers of Scottish Ballet smile back, because coming from the man for whom characterisation is key, this is high praise indeed.

Highland Fling is described as a 'romantic wee ballet'. Picture: Contributed

Britain’s most popular choreographer is in Glasgow to put the finishing touches to Highland Fling, a “romantic wee ballet” first created by Bourne in 1994, now being restaged by Scottish Ballet. It’s the first time Bourne has let another company perform one of his full-length works, and it’s been a challenge for all concerned.

But he’s right, those stroppy walks are looking good. Hands on hips, the men stomp across the rehearsal room wearing angry expressions. It’s a far cry from anything they learned at ballet school – but perfect for a Bourne production.

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When Scottish Ballet’s new artistic director, Christopher Hampson, asked Bourne for Highland Fling, he knew it would be the ideal production to attract and entertain new and existing audiences. But on top of that, he knew it would be good for the dancers. The performers in Bourne’s own company, New Adventures, are as much actors as they are dancers – so to take on Highland Fling, Scottish Ballet would have to find and hone the same skill set.

When I meet Bourne, a week before curtain-up, he’s clearly happy with the transformation that’s taken place.

“If you’d seen some of the dancers a few weeks ago, the difference is amazing,” he says. “At one point I thought we didn’t have anyone who could play one of the roles, and even Chris was worried during the first few days of rehearsals that the dancers weren’t going to get this. But they’ve really applied themselves, and this morning I said well done to them all, and thanked them for going on this journey and taking it all on board.”

Versatility is the foundation of any repertory company, with dancers primed to embrace the ethos and style of any choreographer who walks through the door. Scottish Ballet is no different, but all those who have enjoyed Bourne’s Swan Lake, Nutcracker! and, most recently, Sleeping Beauty will know that the man has a very particular style. Not just in the way he choreographs, with off-kilter, unexpected movement that can provoke both laughter and tears, but his use of well-defined three-dimensional characters.

Up until now, getting the steps right has been the dancers’ paramount concern. But during the last week of rehearsals, Bourne will focus their attention on what they’re thinking and feeling, rather than what they’re doing.

“You can only take so much in at a time, and at the moment the dancers are still thinking about the moves and not bumping into each other. But tomorrow morning they’ve all got to talk about their characters – who they are, what they do and what their backgrounds are, which gets them feeling like that person. Then we ask them to physicalise it – how would that person walk? They’re ready to start doing that now.”

Which might feel a bit last-minute, but over the past few weeks, the dancers have been doing the groundwork. Looking around the rehearsal room, I see several of them writing things down during their short breaks. It’s just one of the strategies Bourne has brought to Glasgow from his own company.

“We’ve taught the work, and talked about it, in the same way we would at New Adventures. We’ve encouraged people to do research, as we always do, to watch films like Trainspotting, which came out around the time we were first creating Highland Fling. And we asked the dancers to have notepads in the room, so they could jot down thoughts about their character during rehearsals.”

Controversially, Bourne has also asked the dancers, many of whom share roles due to the double casting that takes place in all big companies, to discuss their characters.

“My experience of ballet companies is that’s not the natural way,” says Bourne. “The polite thing, when you’re sharing a role with another dancer, is you don’t talk to each other about it, and you almost look the other way when they’re rehearsing. But we’ve told them to talk to each other and share their thoughts, even if it feels alien.”

Like the good professionals they are, that’s exactly what they’ve done. Bourne talks about how “good natured” and “hard working” the Scottish Ballet dancers are. Which is why, despite Highland Fling’s Glasgow setting, they have little in common with the characters in Bourne’s ballet. Opening in a Glasgow nightclub toilet, the show doesn’t shy away from the less salubrious side of life.

“Some people have asked if rehearsing and performing in Glasgow, which is where the ballet is set, makes the work more authentic,” says Bourne with a laugh. “But of course it doesn’t really, because the characters are so far away from the people who perform them. They all have a very dedicated life as dancers, they’re motivated in their careers – whereas the characters in Highland Fling are unemployed, they go out, take drugs and forget everything. These dancers may be young people living in Glasgow – but they’re not that kind of young people.”

•  Scottish Ballet’s Highland Fling is at Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 27 April until 4 May; Eden Court, Inverness, 9-11 May; His Majesty’s, Aberdeen, 16-18 May; Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 22-25 May.