Sylphs and Dolls
Watching back-to-back performances of “La Sylphide” and “Coppélia,” performed over the weekend by the Royal Danish Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, I was struck by the many similarities between two ballets. True, it feels odd to compare them—the tragic story of a man undone by his love for a wood-nymph, and a charming comedy about a girl whose fiancé is in love with a doll—but the similarities are there and, actually, not so surprising. Both are stories of man’s desire to possess the feminine ideal, set in romanticised, bucolic locales (Scotland, a Bohemian village), in which magic (or pretend magic) plays an important part. Both involve “regular folk” (a farming family, Bohemian villagers), both feature children, and both rely on tricks of nineteenth-century stage magic (hydraulic lifts, automatons). And both contain a mysterious, “evil” character, though one is rather more evil than the other.
“La Sylphide” is the older work of the two, and is often referred to as the first Romantic ballet (it was created in 1832, by Filippo Taglioni, and then re-made by August Bournonville in 1836). “Coppélia,” created in 1870 by Arthur Saint-Léon (with wonderful music by Léo Délibes) is in many ways the product of a decadent age, a throwback to the Romantic tradition, made for a Paris Opéra Ballet which was then in decline. Not only had the Romantic tradition fallen into disfavor, but male dancing in Paris had reached such a low ebb that the character of Franz had to be conceived for a female dancer en travesti. “Coppélia” is tongue-in-cheek, sophisticated, and charming, where “Sylphide” is utterly sincere and meant to be taken at face value.
The Danish Royal Ballet’s “La Sylphide” can be considered a kind of canonical version, the text from which others, including ABT’s 1971 Erik Bruhn staging, are derived. It was performed over the weekend by the Danish company, now run by Nikolaj Hübbe, at the David Koch Theatre with marvelous simplicity and directness. The Danes have a wonderful facility for mime; one can practically hear the characters’ “voices”, and one knows exactly what they are thinking. There is no room for confusion, but at the same time, the mime is mercifully un-emphatic, without the usual exclamation points at the end.
The story is quite simple: James, a farmer, is preparing to marry Effy, a nice Scottish lass, but is powerfully drawn to a wood nymph (sylph) who keeps showing up at the family manse (and who is only visible to him). In an act of brash enthusiasm, he runs after her into the woods, where he discovers that she is only one member of realm of magical beings. Away from his human, bourgeois bearings, he desires her even more (the chase, usually fruitless, is a continuous theme in the ballet). But in his misguided effort to possess her—egged on by the machinations of a malevolent sorceress—he accidentally causes her death, and, in a way, his own spiritual death as well. Effie marries his rival. James is left with nothing, lifeless and alone. Evil triumphs. The end.
Both of the performances I saw (June 17 and the June 18 matinée) were beautiful, clean, satisfying. The entire first act is performed off-pointe (except for the sylph), and contains a wonderfully crisp, lively reel. This is classicized folk dance for the entire company (including children from the school), done with precision and gusto: the steps had percussive thrust, the patterns were interesting and varied, the clapping was perfectly timed, the arms exact, the parity of men and women heartening. Both of the dancers who played Effie gave her a clear personality—Camilla Ruelykke Holst was more prosaic and matter-of-fact, Louise Ostergaard more sweet and more in love. The solos for James and his rival (Gurn), full of every kind of jeté, turning jump, and attitude turn in the book were crisply and clearly performed by all the men; Alexander Staeger, as Gurn, had a particularly boyish ardor, and Marcin Kupinski’s James a greater irrascibility and restlessness.
The character of the sylph is a difficult one to pull off. Most non-Danish ballerinas (especially the Russians), imbue her with a kind of otherworldly fluidity which is more appropriate to the Wilis in “Giselle.” But a sylph is not a ghost, and the Danes’ plainness and simplicity, and the passages of staccato footwork, are much more effective than the wan languor of many productions. The sylph is not human, never was. She has the flightiness and lack of rationality of a bird or a flower. I was especially struck by the quiet expressivity of the hands—especially the sensitivity of the palms, which appear to breathe—as well as the articulation of the feet. Each step, each rise onto point, each run on demi-pointe, is an event. The effect was multiplied by eighteen when the entire sisterhood appeared in a slow, deliberate series of unison steps: pas de cheval, port de bras, step into arabesque, pas de bourré. (An unfolding of the leg to the front, showing off the arch of the foot, an artful shifting of the arms, echoed by the head, a step onto one leg with the other extended behind, three little steps to the side in order to switch direction.) There is nothing virtuosic about this phrase, but performed slowly, with grace and in unison by a large group of women in diaphanous white skirts, it is a vision of celestial poetry. From this was born the ballet blanc, i.e. what most people think of when they think of ballet.
The Sylphide, of course, does much more than move her feet with quiet grace. She too must jump and run, and turn on pointe, with increasing vigor. And then, she must die prettily. If anything, Gudrun Bojesen was a bit more quiet and introspective in her interpretation, while Susanne Grinder was softer, more ethereal, but also had more wobbles. And both were chilling in the awful death scene, in which the sylph first loses her wings (one can almost feel the sting on one’s own lower back), then begins to shiver, and finally folds down onto the ground like a wilted flower. With their delicate arms, her sister sylphs attempt to breath life into her expiring torso, which lifts a few times before drifting forward once again. There is something quite weird about a scene which is simultaneously so horrifying and so lovely. And then, the final magic touch: the sylph is carried across the stage, prettily arranged, on a gondola, flanked by two baby sylphs. Suddenly, we’re in the nineteenth-century.
It must be said that both of the dancers who played Madge, the evil sorceress, were extraordinary. Both are former sylphs, now character dancers with the company. Sorella Englund was all rage and incandescent fury; she could have cut down any of the men onstage with a touch of her finger. One can only imagine what her Carabosse (in Sleeping Beauty) must be like. Mette Bodtcher is still a very beautiful woman; her weapon was sensuality, a secret no-one else in the ballet seems aware of.
And a final note on the divertissement from “Napoli”: on Sunday June 18, the leading role of Gennaro was danced by Alban Lendorf, the company’s resident wonder boy. One can see what all the buzz is about. In a company of fine male dancers, he is a showstopper, with big jumps, perfectly clean landings, juicy pliés. He still dances with a youthfully bland demeanor, but he will certainly have a big future, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw him around these parts again.
No-one will ever accuse Natalia Osipova of blandness, youthful or otherwise. She blows the roof off of the theatre every time she dances with her vitality, extroversion, and space-devouring technique. She is, to put it simply, a force of nature, a maelstrom, a marvel. But exuberance isn’t everything. Osipova’s acting can be a little on the broad side, which works well in “Don Quixote” or “The Bright Stream,” but not, as we saw last year, in “Giselle” and “The Sleeping Beauty.” And, on the evidence of the performance on June 20 at the Metropolitan Opera House, not terribly well in “Coppélia” either. Perhaps she is over-compensating for American Ballet Theatre’s rather bland staging, with its little pink houses, un-imaginative ensemble dances, and uninspired choreography for the toy dolls. But Osipova’s Swanilda came across, at least to me, as petulant, charmless, and over-emphatic; her over-enunciated mime felt like a person who speaks at the top of his voice in order to be understood by a crowd of the hearing-impaired. She huffed, and she puffed, she crossed her eyes and raised her eyebrows and scrunched up her face to show displeasure. The dancing, too, was pushed: super-high extensions and flying jumps and lots of technical wham-bam, but not much femininity or subtlety.
Swanilda’s charm isn’t just a notion; it’s written into Délibes’ lilting waltzes, so to ignore it is to dance against the spirit of the music, and what is the fun in that? At one point, her diagonal of brisés—a jump that travels forward, with the two legs beating against each other in front of the body—traveled so far, that she had already reached the other side before the phrase was finished. In the wedding pas de deux in the third act, there was no sense of womanliness, no grandeur, though her fouetté turns in the coda, intermixed with doubles and a triple brought down the house. But Osipova is much more than a technical whiz kid, given the right role and the right direction. And she clearly has theatrical instinct: her doll-like dances in the second act were superb, and completely original. In this act, Swanilda simulates the movement of a doll in order to trick the spiteful Coppelius into thinking that his creation has come to life (Coppelius, like James in La Sylphide, is a dreamer, albeit one with white hair and stiff joints). Osipova’s doll was spectacular: her torso leaned forward as if someone had bent her at the waist, her palms aimed stiffly outward, her jerky arms and legs were almost eerily mechanical. But this is only one aspect of the role.
Much more satisfying (though less spectacular) was Paloma Herrera’s “Coppélia” on Saturday night (June 18), with Ángel Corella, who was also her partner back in 1997 on the night this production premièred in California. Herrera was flirty, fiery, and bossy (that strong Argentine character served her well), but also blossomed into a woman in love in the final act. She has been dancing with extra lushness this season, taking a few risks, having more fun onstage—could it be the Ratmansky effect? Corella has lost none of his charm and warmth (while Daniil Simkin, sailing high alongside Osipova, was more than a little self-satisfied). Corella had the audience, and Herrera, in the palm of his hand from his first appearance onstage. His jumps are not as clean as they once were, but his turning and partnering skills are intact. Seldom have I seen such easy lifts, and he is not a big man. He just knows how to do them, with panache. This was a lovely tribute to Herrera’s twentieth season with the company. Let’s hope that Corella appears more often in coming seasons than he has since founding the Corella Ballet in Spain.
A few other highlights: Roman Zhurbin has added Dr. Coppélius to his list of vivid character roles; this is a man with an imagination. His crotchety doll-maker/sorcerer is suspicious, mean, justifiably diffident, but inwardly tender. Zhurbin makes him seem just mad enough to really believe that he has the power to bring his doll to life, even at the cost of stealing a man’s (Franz’s) heart. Hee Seo was breathtaking as “Prayer”, hovering on pointe with one leg raised high, only to softly bend forward into a kneeling position. She successfully transformed herself into an essence, as she did last year in Ashton’s “Thaïs”. The girls from the Jacqueline Onassis School at ABT were lovely and precise in their “Dance of the Hours”–it was nice to see some of them, looking just a little bit taller, after their last appearance in the company’s new “Nutcracker.” And Devon Teuscher and Alexandre Hammoudi managed to breathe life into the Hungarian dance, the czardas, dancing with sensuality and just a touch of folksy pride.
Alas, the Danes have left our shores. May they return soon, hopefully with full productions of “Napoli” and “Folk Tale,” and perhaps some Balanchine to boot. Nikolaj Hübbe must be happy with their reception here, deservedly so. For now, the sylph lives, at least in Denmark.
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