There was a time in Scottish history, after the Jacobites rose up against King George II, when wearing a kilt or dancing Highland style could carry a whiff of sedition. A century later, the clans are mastered, the tartan is fashionable and Queen Victoria spends the summer at Balmoral. For photographer and filmmaker Robbie Lawrence, who grew up in Edinburgh, the traditions that have emerged amid this shift from extreme repression to blasted sentimentality raise “a question mark about our cultural nationalism in Scotland, and why we have a rather parochial nostalgia for our cultural roots. The dance of the Highlands, once the province of villagers and warriors in northern Scotland, is now taught to school children, who dress in national costume and travel to competitions as far away as Las Vegas. It is a form of national construction, in a country which flirts with independence.
In “Blue Bonnets,” Lawrence’s directorial debut, however, dancing is just dancing. “My favorite dance is the jig, and my second favorite is the Blue Bonnets,” says Victoria, one of the children we see practicing their steps. In one scene, six pairs of legs, turned at the knees, prance and frolic in unison as a teacher’s voice calls for encouragement. “The dance itself is incredibly physical and, from my point of view, quite strange when you first see it – almost abstract,” Lawrence said. Highland dancers jump and bounce on the soles of their feet, keeping their body straight and their arms raised while sweeping their legs to the side or touching their toes to the back of their calves. Viewed as a whole, the effort – and the technical nature of the steps – is palpable, but the solo demonstrations, each filmed in unassuming outdoor locations (a boy named Lachlan dancing on a residential sidewalk, Victoria on an incline behind a building) have a disarming facility.
No adults appear in “Blue Bonnets,” and childlike spaces — a leafy lawn, a swing over a river, a faded gym where girls chat in the corners — predominate. Shots of torrid landscapes base the film in Scotland, but the precise location is illegible, the time of an ahistorical summer break. “I was very interested in the idea of practicing and imagining that time in childhood where you’re waiting in old church halls, kind of bored, waiting for your parents to pick you up,” Lawrence said. A few of her dancers wear tartan stockings and soft dance shoes called gillies, but most train in leggings and t-shirts, sneakers and shorts. If they know their story, they don’t reveal it. “All cultures and nations have these things that they grow up with and celebrate,” Lawrence said. “Basically these kids are just practicing one of them, and it could be anything. They don’t think how Scottish they are; they think, I need to learn something really complicated As a headgear, a blue bonnet might suggest a rebellious Jacobite.For Victoria, it’s just her second favorite dance.