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DANCE | National Ballet's La Sylphide Brings History To Life

By Stephan Bonfield on March 11, 2016

National Ballet confronts historical challenges with Johan Kobborg’s remarkable La Sylphide.

Sonia Rodriguez in La Sylphide. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann, courtesy of The National ballet of Canada.
Sonia Rodriguez in La Sylphide. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada.

The National Ballet of Canada closed its run of choreographer Johan Kobborg’s La Sylphide last week in what proved to be a sensational series of seven beautifully new, re-enlivened performances.   It was my decided good fortune to attend three of them in order to take in this earliest repertoire piece of pointe ballet, but especially to take advantage of a supreme learning opportunity.

Here was a chance to see the work of a young Danish choreographic master who had painstakingly reconstituted many elements of the work from his detailed knowledge of the Royal Danish Ballet version, created by its great visionary August Bournonville 180 years ago. As such, it was a chance to enter a time machine and go back to soak in multiple elements too numerous to count of what the Danish audience might have seen of this Parisian balletic exemplar.

While it is true that we have had many memorable La Sylphide revivals and performances over the past fifty years (excerpts of the Eric Bruhn version may be seen on-line, to name only one example), there have been none quite like this one offered by Mr. Kobborg.

Why?  Because his scrupulous attention to detail has elucidated a freshness of authenticity and, in effect, brought history to life, making us all witnesses to early Romantic dance aesthetic.  Here is a much-needed and worthy task that succeeded admirably in demonstrating just how emotionally powerful La Sylphide can be.

From Bournonville to Kobborg

You don’t have to know Bournonville to love this ballet.  All one needs to know is that the amount of background work accomplished at the micro-choreographic level by both Mr. Kobborg and the entire National Ballet was outstanding.  I was lost in a haze for days thinking about its every move, and the lush experience of beauty ensconced in each gesture that every moment could confer.  So many of us came away with treasured memories of these outstanding presentations.

I revelled in the work Mr. Kobborg had done.  Now director of the Romanian National Ballet Company since 2013, Mr. Kobborg had previously danced the principal male role of James many times, and therefore could bring considerable performance experience to La Sylphide,  bolstered by his own innate sense of research and historical imagination – truly a rare gift – down to the ballet’s finest details.  Mr. Kobborg restored music and original mime, and took care to revisit as many aspects of the original demure aesthetic that Bournonville himself described in his letters regarding his unique choreography.

When we think of the Bournonville of the Royal Danish Ballet, we think of the obsessive and driven ballet innovator who gave his own particular language and choreographic style to a variety of early Romantic classics, most prominent among them La Sylphide (1836).  He crafted a unique movement narrative style that bridged the elegant eighteenth-century classical manners of the French Enlightenment, handed down to him by his ballet-trained father, to a new dance language of the nineteenth century, one that embraced the rising impact of the athletic danseur, the dawn of the virtuoso, and the marriage of ballet science with aesthetic refinement.  That became the traditional language of the repertoire we take for granted today from Giselle to Sleeping Beauty.

In Bournonville, we find an artistic personality driven to learn the technical language of every kind of move, and its next possible evolution whether in gesture or logical extension.  To capture the historical and aesthetic essence of La Sylphide means having to train dancers with that same kind of zeal to know anatomical precision of where and how to dance/mime each of Bournonville’s gestures, and where they might uniquely lead in a sequence of narrative.

It is here that we owe Mr. Kobborg a debt of gratitude for his work and to repetiteurs Lindsay Fischer, Mandy-Jane Richardson and Rex Harrington for transmitting his intentions faithfully.  Even though Mr. Kobborg premiered his choreography after Bournonville at The Royal Ballet, Covent Garden to great critical acclaim in 2005, it has certainly helped that he has been able to live with the work for a while, and was able to fine-tune it even more for National Ballet audiences.

Bournonville repertoire was known in its day for demanding iron strength in the feet, ankles and legs — glissades, executed for their own sake, petit allegro hops and positioning of the ankles, unique pas de basques, repeated ballonnés light as air, and the long list of special attributes goes on and on.

However, Bournonville also stressed grace over virtuosity, and we saw that too in the bras bas, a lowered port au bras with slightly dipped shoulder to elegant, demure effect in all the sylphes, who were astonishingly well danced by a luminous corps de ballet in Act II.

Harrison James with Artists of the Ballet in La Sylphide. Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada.
Harrison James with Artists of the Ballet in La Sylphide. Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada.

The ballet

La Sylphide is a basic folktale reminiscent of Bournonville’s great contemporary Hans Christian Anderson (who, it turns out, was Bournonvile’s dance student).  The storyline was typical of other ‘fairy’ tales and would have been widely circulated and retold in multiple varieties over two centuries ago.

The ballet’s plot is about a young Scotsman (James) who renounces hearth and home to escape the shackles of his impending marriage (to Effie), because he is inwardly fascinated with chasing a woodland sylph.  It turns out that the Sylphe cannot have physical contact with any mortal or else she will die.  On his way to pursuing her, James displaces the ill-omened Madge, a witch, who is warming herself unobtrusively by his fireplace as wedding guests arrive. Madge is evicted when she forecasts that Effie will marry Gurn, James’s rival.  To further avenge the young Scot’s prejudices, Madge dupes him into giving his beloved Sylphe a hexed scarf, knowing that James will not be able to resist ensnaring the object of his affections, with whom he cannot consummate his ardour.  James captures his Sylphe, holding her with the scarf, and kisses her.  When he raises her aloft (ironically, the only lift in the ballet), the Sylphe realizes she is dying.  Her wings fall off and she goes blind.

After the fateful kiss, and in a remarkable moment of well-directed, pure vulnerability, the Sylphe seems to teeter, still en pointe, almost astonished at her own weakness as the life drains from her.  She returns his promise ring and falls back dead into the arms of her fellow sylphs.  It is a gorgeous moment, an example of the sublime in Romantic era art, but most of all, it is a moment that could only happen in quite that manner in ballet, and never in Romantic-era opera.  Opera’s demands produce different narrative concerns which are considerably more extravagant in expression from ballet.  That is why dance is so special:  each choreographer must develop a movement language that speaks subtly and with its own unique clarity to convey so much and often with seemingly so little.  Mr. Kobborg’s staging of the Sylphe’s death scene was exquisite, perfectly played by all three dancers I saw over the weekend (see below), and a fine example of Romantic-era ballet, never overdone in gesture, yet still powerfully overwhelming in emotion.

In spite of the prevailing folk tale symbols interlaced with recognizable German Romantic literary idioms (i.e., the unattainable, the otherworldly forest, the supernatural imaginative), all of which were well known to Bournonville, he was more interested in transmitting a parochial morality tale.  James is not condemned for his dreams of the unattainable Sylphe, rather Bournonville tells us explicitly that what finishes James in the end is his lack of self-control and the abandonment of his responsibility toward both his bride-to-be and domestic obligations.

Mr. Kobburg clearly appreciated this aspect of the story’s original narrative intention when he re-inserted newly-found music from Act II that carries an important mime scene in which the Sylphe demurely gestures to James that she cannot be touched — not even a kiss.  When she asks James to look with his heart and not his eyes, it is made clear by the ensuing action that he struggles to do so.

As if to underscore the irony of loving a being who cannot be touched, Mr. Kobburg also devised  a pas de deux with no contact, the most counter-intuitive choreography possible to clichéd classical ballet staging.  Tasteful, ironic, perfect in its own way, it was a dramatic pivot to demonstrating unfulfilled longing, and James’s incapacity for self-control, a man who does not know his own idealism well, a striking image of considerable universality.

Worse, he has no idea of the idealism of the Sylphe’s world, a fantasy forest where there are no rules.  They promise to love each other, tantamount to a bucolic marriage outside the confines of society.  She dances with ethereal freedom and gives him all she has with the most naïve tenderness – the forest, the water, the food that grows there.

But James cannot convey his need to her for physical consummation, a world that the innocent Sylphe cannot comprehend.  Even though he dances with Bournonville’s ideal of joy during his Act II divertissement (an early twentieth-century insert by Hans Beck), much as we would expect from someone who has acquired his unattainable, the dancing of the two principles could not be further apart, he in his dramatic grand jetés, most of which are directed downstage, and she in demure lightness of step, cross-stage or angled away from the stage’s proscenium.  The dramatic opposition perfectly sets up James’s own destruction via his incapacity to listen to his Sylphe.

Each cast have splendid accountings of these attributes, and accented different aspects of the ballet’s story.  For example, the Saturday matinée cast, consisting of Meghan Pugh as Effie, who was the embodiment of innocence, and Harrison James as James — an electrifying dancer with great lines combining freshness in both movement and acting energy while bestowing clear intention to all he did — we were easily admitted inside a world where we could have believed that Ms. Pugh and Mr. James were possibly, indeed, going to be married by the end of the story.   They make a convincing couple from the beginning, and thereby augment the tragic dimension at the time of their relationship’s dissolution.

Ms. Pugh also danced the role in Saturday evening’s performance, and with more onstage smile at the beginning than the matinée.  Her poise and posture were perfect, and her characterization, full with eager anticipation that her dreams of domestic bliss were about to be fulfilled nearly broke my heart.

One of the more remarkable sub-plots to the casting was Sonia Rodriguez, who not only played a terrifyingly theatrical Madge on Sunday, but was a restrained and glowing Sylphe in her own right for Saturday’s matinée.  Using focused, elegant lines and beautifully co-ordinated albeit contained natural movement, it was hard to believe that she would play Madge the next day, the very opposite of her matinée performance persona.  Ms. Rodriguez was admirable.

The evening performance featured a stunning Naoya Ebe as James.  He was utterly electrifying to watch, with imposing grand jetés, accurate double tours in both directions and perfect entrechats.  His was a masculine ideal energy, brimming with confidence and sharply drawn diagonals.  He served as a more potent counterpoint to Ms. Pugh’s Effie, who adjusted well to her different partner, as it drew from her a different, slightly more acute series of responses in her acting and gestures, particularly as she sees James slipping away from her.

Whereas Mr. James was agreeable and dashing in his role, and danced with considerable elegance and strength, Mr. Ebe brought forth a more visceral muscularity to the role.  Both will live on in memory equally as beautiful characterizations of the role, simply because we need both to fully understand the nature of James’s character dynamic.  It is always a joy to witness such multi-dimensional competence in characterization and in a recondite movement language brought so ably to life.

The same must be said for another special casting treat and that was the surprise arrival of former Royal Ballet first soloist, and now principal at the Romanian National Ballet, Dawid Trzensimiech, who danced James at the Sunday matinée closing performance.  It was an opportunity to see this rising star, and for the most part, he certainly did not disappoint.  He represented a different flavour of dancer and showed discretely different training in his jumps and landings, but acquitted himself conspicuously well for someone thrust into the spotlight  with only one performance to get it right.  Mr. Trzensimiech ran the emotional gamut conspicuously well, much like Mr. James, and was convincing.

As for the remaining two Sylphes, Elena Lobsanova brought a more fluid presentation Saturday night and perhaps a little more pointed extraversion when it came to enticing James.  She was less demure and a little more playful.  She exudes a natural stage magnetism with her body shape and hair colour, arm length and physical construction.  There is a naturalness of talent in how she makes use of space and, especially, how she floats spellbindingly across the stage.

Sunday’s Sylphe Svetlana Lunkina made it impossible for you to take your eyes off her for even an instant.  Hers was the ideal performance and the perfect casting choice for closing the run.  Ms. Lunkina is an unforgettable dancer, and represents yet another stunning principal artist thriving in National Ballet’s fold.  I could watch her forever.

But one of my current favourites is Jillian Vanstone, whom I have watched at Banff and many other locations.  A Western Canadian, and a natural actor and mover, she brings earthy loveliness to each role, and her depiction of Effie was no exception.  Pure of heart and bringing much onstage radiance, she was perfect in her scenes of anticipation and rejection, and in many ways, an excellent acting counterpart to Mr. Trzensimiech’s diffident treatment of her.  In this performance, the tragedy of opposites created a different La Sylphide that was more divisive in its effect between the principals.

Three shows, and three different ballets, in effect, helped to make a composite view of the entire work, thankfully presented by three very astute casts.

The corps however, might just have stolen the show with their glorious movement in Act II with the sylvan scene that would end up making dance history and establish a precedent for how Romantic-era ballet would be staged from that point onward.

Even when they didn’t move, their assemblés, breath support, elegant poses and general posture, including discreet glances of the eyes, and positioning of the head when in tendu conveyed an almost surreal beauty, more so qualitatively than what we typically see in the corps of ballets such as Giselle or La Bayadère.

Here was how one makes unique experiences in the art of dance.  Mr. Kobborg’s judicious attention to the technical had resurrected an antique and made it live and breathe again with complete naturalness and ease, making me think that the dancers of the National Ballet had been performing Bournonville every day of their lives for the past ten years.

Added to the whole mystique was the re-enactment of Bournonville’s apparent concern for his dancers’ virtue.  As ballet master Lindsay Fischer pointed out, Denmark was a restrained society at the time of the ballet’s remounting in the 1830s and beyond, so Bournonville had the front and back of the womens’ skirts tied together so that their upper legs could not be seen when executing a jump.  Even this detail was observed in Mr. Kobborg’s detailed retelling, underscoring sylvan innocence.

Finally, Mr. Kobborg wisely avoided mystifying the scarf as a hexed plot device.  The essence of the morality tale, as conveyed splendidly by the acting, particularly in Ms. Rodriguez’s Madge, is that James is responsible for his own downfall.  And in so many cases of Romantic literature, that message rang true loud and clear thanks to Mr. Kobborg and the dancing acumen of everyone in the National Ballet of Canada, making this a wholly triumphant production.


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