DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition
When the curtain rose Saturday afternoon on the Royal Danish Ballet’s new production of La Sylphide it rose on a miracle. After four days of a Napoli that, one tried to tell oneself, might be the best that could be expected after the many changes the company has undergone in the past decade, the minute Gudrun Bojesen extended her long, beautiful foot and began to dance, time stopped. What we saw last weekend was, with allowances for changes in cast and designs, what we saw 11-and-a-half years ago when the company last danced La Sylphide at the Kennedy Center. The musicality was there, the poetry was there, the drama, the pacing, the beautiful soft, clear, modest dancing.
Nikolaj Hübbe’s production of the company’s most treasured ballet is a traditional one, in the line of those directed by Hans Brenaa and Henning Kronstam in which he grew up. In the ballet, James, a young Scotsman, runs away from his life and his fiancée the morning of his wedding to dance with his dreams in the forest. All does not end well, for either James or his dream, the beautiful Sylphide.
Hübbe has made one change in the character and some of the mime belonging to Gurn, the young man who is in love with Effy, James’s discarded fiancée, about which more later, but otherwise the ballet is intact. The company showed three casts here: Gudrun Bojesen and Thomas Lund, with Lis Jeppesen as Madge, the witch who sets the tragedy in motion Saturday afternoon; Silja Schandorff with Mads Blangstrup and Mette Bødtcher as Madge Saturday night; and Bojesen again (substituting for Rose Gad, who was injured and missed the tour) with Blangstrup and Jette Buchwald. In the best Danish tradition, all the dancers were both soundly within the story, and very much themselves.
That wasn’t surprising; Hübbe is a very fine dramatic dancer. What was surprising was how beautiful the ballet looked. Even the very positive Danish reviews (they had reservations about the designs, but not Hübbe's direction) hadn't prepared me for it. It shouldn’t have been possible to coax such fleet and delicate dancing out of the corps, or to have smoothed out the imperfections that have crept into the style, or to have recaptured so accurately the musical phrasing. The dancing was both old-fashioned in its modesty (as befits the ballet) and utterly fresh. The dance of the sylphides in the second act was especially beautiful: light and shimmering. That any director could pull this off would be a feat; that Hübbe did it his first time out of the box is astounding.
Both Bojesen and Schandorff caught the innocence of the Sylph perfectly, though in different ways. Bojesen was innocent as an animal is innocent, innocent of death and tragedy. With her long limbs and pale blonde beauty, Bojesen is like a long-stemmed, pink rose. She’s one of the lightest dancers I’ve ever seen; she floats rather than dances. She’s also extraordinarily fluid. In the Sylph’s second act solo that she dances alone on the stage she’s free and playful, a creature of the air alone with nature. The moment James enters and she becomes aware of him, her demeanor changes, and she’s demure again. This Sylph has both a public and a private face. Her death was danced, starting with a tremor in the foot that shot up the leg to the knee, then the thigh, then the spine and then, too quickly to see, to the head. It was an extraordinary performance.
Schandorff was equally extraordinary, and very different. She’s an adorable Sylph (and what other dancer in her mid-30s can look adorable and get away with it?) With those huge eyes, she has no choice. The fact that she’s tall makes her Sylph even more other-worldly, a giant, laughing child let loose in a metaphysical netherworld. Schandorff was also innocent, an innocent temptress, like a pre-adolescent girl in a revealing dress, aware of her effect on men, yet not fully understanding it. Her dancing was soft; she looks and moves as though she’s made of cream, and she can do all the pretty little hand claps that Bournonville choreographed into the role as though they’re spontaneous gestures. Her death was a shock—to her, to James, and to the audience—because something so beautiful and such a life force should not be mortal.
Lund, dancing with Bojesen, was a very young James, clearly in love with Effy (the excellent Tina Højlund, who took the two seconds she needed to make it clear that this was her wedding day and the happiest day of her life). Lund is too slight to be an ideal James, but he’s a thoughtful one, and he’s an outsider, by face and body, in that rough highland world. Perhaps the Sylph senses a kinship, knows he’d rather be bounding about in the forest than sitting home in front of the fire. Lund’s jump, high and effortless, is the glory of the current RDB, and his keen sense of phrasing makes his dancing soar at one with the music. He has a good sense of dramatic tone, as well, making it clear that, in the second act, James is happy in his forest, and that the tragedy happens only in the last minute of the ballet.
Blangstrup, the same age as Lund (29) is in many ways his opposite. Blond where Lund is dark, deep where Lund is light. His James could have lived, restlessly, the life he'd been born to live; his attraction to the Sylph seemed a shock to him. Blangstrup’s dancing was bold and free and powerful, but the character, especially in his relationship with Effy, is not yet completely fleshed out.
The third character in this little fable is Madge, the witch whom James insults and who later gets her revenge. The company brought three Madges: Mette Bødtcher (Saturday evening), was a creature of the forest with a muscular strength, but has not yet surrendered her considerable beauty. Jette Buchwald (Sunday afternoon) gave a good, solid traditional reading but perhaps lacks, as yet, the confidence to act at full power.
Lis Jeppesen (Saturday afternoon), the great Sylphide of her generation, is well on her way to becoming one of the great Madges. She’s tiny and doesn’t apologize for it; small, cute people can be malicious, too. There were suggestions in the late 20th century that Madge is really in love with James, or is a Sylph who has lost her wings. Jeppesen seems to have none of that, but takes a simple, and more terrible, approach: her Madge wants attention and cannot stand any slight. She revels in the fortune telling scene, revels in her power to sting. She seems a harmless old crone, though perhaps a nasty one, until the scene where she and her assistant witches gather ‘round a caldron to concoct the scarf that will be the Sylph’s undoing. She’s chosen the ingredients with relish, as though each toad is a personal friend, and she’s cackling with witchly glee in anticipation of what will happen. And then suddenly one notices that her fingers have turned into worms. Throughout the second act, one has the uncomfortable feeling that she makes her terrible mischief simply because she can.
There’s also been debate over the years whether the Sylph is real or a dream. Is she not both? One could think of La Sylphide as an abstract ballet about the elusiveness of the ideal, its story only a dress. The fairy story makes the myth visible. It wasn’t meant to be taken literally, but I think it has to be danced literally for the metaphor to make its point. The one change that Hübbe has made to the production is relatively minor, but it’s annoying. He’s cut two bits of Gurn’s mime. This production's Gurn cannot see the Sylph, and the two places where he tells the others that James has been behaving oddly, first in the room, then out in the forest, dancing around with a Sylph (which Gurn shows by miming Sylph wings) have been cut.
It's just a few seconds, and the first time you see it, you barely notice it, just have a vague feeling that something is missing. But I don’t think it makes theatrical sense (it could be done in a film, but not on stage) and the ballet doesn’t support it. Gurn does see the Sylph. She is visible to anyone in the room. That’s why she quiets the farmhands who are about to wake in the first scene; she doesn’t want them to see her. You can take it at face value—she’s a fairy, she’s there—or you can find another reason to make it make sense. I don't know Brenaa's reasoning, but Kronstam's was that the Sylph is a spirit who materializes—makes herself visible—to James so that he can see her, presumably because the enticements she's whispered to him as he's hunted in the forest haven't gotten through. Once she’s materialized, she’s visible.
The Sylph is a careful temptress. She only appears when James is alone, or at least is the only conscious person in the room, or at the top of the stairs, or when the guests are distracted. When James tries to hide her under a tartan in the chair, Gurn sees this, and calls the others so he can show them. He goes to the chair, pulls off the tartan that has covered the Sylph with a flourish—and she’s gone. He does the same thing now, but there’s no point to it, since she was never there. Gurn can’t mime “I’m in the room with the two of them, but I can’t see the Sylph, I can only see James,” and so the idea doesn't quite work on the stage. Also, at the end of the act, when Gurn goes out chasing after James, and comes back to tell the wedding party what he sees, he now (as he only sees James running off) makes a vague gesture to his forehead. But everyone is concerned, asking “What did you see? Where is he?” and his shrug is a let down. The people in that story believed in sylphs (and brownies and other fairy folk), and they would accept the explanation Bournonville set for Gurn.
The story is told at such a brisk clip that this doesn’t matter at a single viewing, and since the ballet survived about 30 years with Gurn danced as a middle-aged buffoon it can certainly weather this interpretation, but it’s going to fester; it’s a blemish on an otherwise perfect peach. If the dancer dancing James or Gurn makes sense of the story by having the Sylph be a dream, that's fine. She can be a fairy, a dream, his mother or a new Porsche. It doesn't matter what's going on in his head, but it matters what we see. The Sylph is real, on stage; you can’t get around it. She has a solo in the second act by herself. If she’s a dream, a vision, that solo couldn’t be there. (Maybe it's time to have a Sylph stage the ballet and have James be only a dream.)
Nicolai Hansen was a very young, immensely likable Gurn—young enough and honest enough to pull off the bit in the second act where Gurn finds James’s bonnet and is happy about it. He danced his solo very well, as did Morten Eggert, a slightly sneakier, more cynical Gurn.
The only other quibble I had was the pace of the reel. I missed Kronstam’s faster, wilder version for the 1992 production. It not only took off from the energy of the two solos, but painted a picture of women who drank their whisky neat and men who hunted wild boars, a dark, masculine world in contrast to the light, feminine world of the Sylph’s glade. It was rooted, too, grounded, the dancers stomping the floor, in contrast to the light, quiet, dances in the second act, and it had the effect of an explosion.
One change that worked very well was making the little girl who gets to dance with Gurn in the reel a relative, perhaps James’ little sister (they wear the same tartan). It’s a small thing, and only took a bit of mime, but it patched up one tiny hole in the fabric of the drama.
If the ballet were danced in the old sets and costumes, it would have been a complete restoration. Unfortunately, Mikael Melbye’s sets are more of a hindrance than a help. The first act is a dark, large room—with a cathedral window, letting in enough light to dispel James’s gloom and clear his mind; with a window like that, he doesn’t need the Sylph.
The costumes in the first act are heavy and dark, Victorian, which doesn’t suit the ballet’s time period (a vague Then Time, not the year of the score). The costumes are so dark that Effy and James’ mother are nearly invisible. The pipers wear busbies, as though they’ve been rented for the occasion, and they have to enter down stairs, which robs the production of the excitement possible when the door opens and the neighbors burst in. The second act sets are more realistic than magical—every leaf is visible, as though the Sylph might hand James hedge clippers and put him to work. But if I have to choose between less than ideal sets and a less than ideal direction, I'll take the former. A window here and a busby there can't spoil Hübbe's miracle.
The company followed this with Etudes at two performances and Napoli Act III at another. Oddly, it now dances Etudes in the revision Harald Lander made for the Paris Opera Ballet rather than the one he created for the Royal Danes. In America, Etudes is danced as a classroom exercise, an excuse for showy steps, but in Denmark it had a point. It was a bridge ballet, Lander’s way of moving his company from sylphs to swans (there’s a moment when three of the “white girls” take an attitude and then straighten the leg into arabesque that’s an aesthetic manifesto). He used material from the Danish repertory—a bit from La Ventana (which isn't in the French version), references to La Sylphide, although the Sylph has acquired a partner (danced by a third man, the Prince, in the last version he set for the RDB). Why the company wants to show a foreign version, led by three foreign dancers, of its one great 20th century ballet is a mystery, but there it was, in its best National Ballet of Anywhere Else mode. The dancing didn’t have the hard-edge brilliance Paris would bring it, and it didn’t have the soft, melodious glow one once associated with Danish dancing either. Caroline Cavallo, Andrew Bowman and Jean-Lucien Massot were the solo dancers. Massot was quite good in his variations, although he doesn’t have the line for the “Prince” role. Bowman, a cheery Australian, was off his form at the performance I saw (I had to miss the Saturday matinee Etudes to get to a lecture). Cavallo was probably at the top of hers. She has a solid technique and a lovely smile, but lacks both the mystery and authority of a ballerina.
Etudes is a crowd pleaser, and the audience loved it, but if it was intended to show the state of the current company, bringing it may have been a misjudgment.
Alexandra Tomalonis is the editor of DanceView, and the author of Henning Kronstam, Portrait of a Danish Dancer.
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