Friday, March 4, 2016

Come Fly With Me: La Sylphide Soars at the National Ballet of Canada

Jurgita Dronina and Harrison James in La Sylphide, at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre until March 6. (Photo: Aleksandar Antonijevic)

La Sylphide is the quintessential Romantic ballet, brimming with light-as-a-feather ballerinas on satin pointes, a central male character probing the meaning of existence, a misty landscape ruled by supernatural beings that flit across the imagination and a theme of doomed love. Its historical importance can’t be overstated, and yet Toronto audiences for the most part stayed away in droves when the rarely seen work opened at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on Wednesday for a limited five-day run.

Rows upon rows of seats lay empty for the North American premiere of Johan Kobborg’s remake of August Bournonville’s iconic 1836 work, which is a great pity because this production soars. With a stellar cast lead by dynamic newcomer Jurgita Dronina, a Russian-born principal dancer steeped in the Bournonville style from her years dancing with the Royal Danish Ballet, plus a trendy mad-for-plaid design by the legendary Desmond Heeley and appropriately moody lighting by Robert Thomson, La Sylphide is a high from start to finish.

A former Royal Ballet star who learned the paradigmatic Danish ballet in his native Denmark, Kobborg debuted his production of La Sylphide at Covent Garden in 2005 to ecstatic reviews. Its revival at the National Ballet of Canada replaces the Erik Bruhn version that first entered the company’s repertoire in 1964, a work with an esteemed heritage. This is the ballet Mikhail Baryshnikov asked to perform as a thank-you to Toronto for helping him to defect to the West in the 1970s. Before him, the male lead role of James, a Scottish farmer enchanted by a winged creature from a nearby wood who compels him to abandon his fiancée on his wedding day and follow his bliss, was also famously danced in Toronto by Nureyev, and by Bruhn himself. And so there is some local pride associated with the ballet in addition to close to two centuries of dance history. If the National Ballet’s marketing department did not exploit this fact then consider it an opportunity lost. Certainly this is a work that ought to be seen. But save for a handful of occasions – Nikolaj Hübbe’s 2005 staging being one – La Sylphide doesn’t get aired much. There is a reason for this.

The ballet showcases the buoyant dancing style unique to the Royal Danish Ballet. Characterized by razor-sharp footwork, airborne leaps, quick shifts in direction and an upper body that looks calm and noble in spite of all the fast-paced movement going on below the waist, the sweeping Bournonville style is not easily exported. It takes years to master the technique and so Bournonville ballets like La Sylphide are often held in check until there is the right combination of talent and teachers who can patiently impart its subtle narrative secrets to dancers otherwise raised in the boldly declarative style of the Russian classics. It’s like demanding that fish fly, and so the tendency is to avoid the winged dancing for as long as possible. But out of sight out of mind – and a ballet not regularly seen is a ballet whose merits are too easily forgotten.

It’s likely why this week’s premiere has been greeted with some degree of indifference. Contemporary audiences just aren’t all that familiar with it nor aware that La Sylphide is a big deal: the first to employ pointe work as a tool of expression for the ballerina, and among the first to present men and women on an equal footing on the dance stage. Bournonville’s La Sylphide is actually an adaptation of the original 1832 ballet which Filippo Taglioni created in Paris as a showcase for the remarkable talents of his daughter, Marie Taglioni, the archetypical Romantic ballerina. That work was female-dominated, as was then the norm at the Paris Opera at that time. Male dancers were called disgusting by lascivious dance critics who ogled ballerinas in print and eyed other men as their rivals. Male roles were often danced by women in drag. (But that’s another story.)

Harrison James and Artists of the National Ballet of Canada in La Sylphide. (Photo: Aleksandar Antonijevic)

Bournonville, a practising Christian who was also something of a proto-feminist, wanted no part of the sexual politics then shaping ballet in Paris, world capital of the art form. When he returned to Copenhagen, he reworked La Sylphide to give the male dancer – meaning himself – a bigger role to play. James, the character Bournonville created, colours the ballet with emotional ups and downs. He is the tortured soul at the heart of the ballet, the man who cannot reconcile his dreams with reality, and the reason the ballet is a tragedy.

Ironically, James is a farmer whose occupation should keep him preoccupied with things of the earth. And yet he is more a dreamer, prone to losing himself in airy fantasies. The first time the audience sees him on stage he is asleep by a fire, presumably dreaming. By his side kneels the Sylph, a supernatural figure in white with wings on her back, watching over him. She could be a figment of his imagination, as, save for a couple of jealous episodes involving his rival Gurn, only James can see her. If she is a vision, she is a manifestation of a longing for a different existence than the one James is presently living.

The scene is his wedding day, and Effie, his bride-to-be, is preparing for the nuptials with the entire community, young and old, surrounding her. All the women wear shoes, marking their identity as human and their connection to the world of corporeality which James is so eager to escape. Only the Sylph wears pointe shoes, symbolizing her existence in a realm above. The dichotomy between a life of the spirit and a life of the flesh creates an unbroken line of tension that gives the ballet both dramatic structure and thematic weight.

Pulled between the two extremes of human existence, James represents the Romantic point of view that life is a never-ending struggle that ends not in happiness but in death. It’s a bleak perspective to be sure, but one that enriched so much Romantic art – La Sylphide being a prime example. Oppositional forces drive the ballet into deep intellectual territory. The ballet presents contradictory realities as a means of inspiring an inquiry into the meaning of truth: mind versus body, natural versus supernatural, lust versus fidelity, the individual versus the group.

The Sylph exists outside accepted societal norms; she is anti-marriage, or at least she is against James’ marriage to Effie. She cajoles him to run away with her into the woods where she will continue to watch over him, as she has done all along. He does not need much persuading. In the middle of spirited Highland reel involving his close-knit society, he obeys his instincts more than his sense of duty. His betrayal of his own kind is symbolized by the group dance losing its pattern and structure, as soon as he leaves the fold. When he runs out the door to join the Sylph in the wood, James abandons his betrothed at the altar and ostracizes himself from his community for good. But what does he gain? The destruction of all he knows and desires.

Photo: Aleksandar Antonijevic.
His relationship with the Sylph is meant be chaste; she forbids him to touch her and remains elusive even as he lunges to grab hold of her. Madge, a witch whose grotesque behaviour serves as a foil to the Sylph’s purity, convinces him to wrap his dream object’s body with a silken cloth secretly dipped in poison. James entices the Sylph with it, mimicking her own fluttering movements as he waves the silk overhead. She submits to being draped but then James, having essentially entrapped her, takes advantage of the situation and kisses her hotly on the chest.

The abrupt intrusion of the erotic into the spiritual realm instantly has catastrophic results. In short order, the Sylph loses her wings, goes blind (never again shall she watch over him) and dies. Just as he loses his dream, James sees in the distance a wedding party advancing. It is Effie, now married to Gurn. The community has moved on without him. James, the outsider, now has nowhere else to go. Madge confronts him in a moment of triumph, and then he too, dies, the conflict within him as yet unresolved. In Bournonville’s day, La Sylphide served as a cautionary tale warning of the dangers of pursuing dreams instead of reality; here was also the moral message of honouring your responsibilities and your community. It is not entirely old-fashioned.

In the excellent online video the National Ballet has created as a preview for its week of La Sylphide performances, Kobborg speaks in an on-camera interview about how the ballet still has something meaningful to communicate to today’s audience: “It’s a theme we all can kind of relate to. I’m not saying that we all have an affair and run off with another woman. I’m not saying that. .... I think we all on a daily basis are confronted with questions, those big questions in life – should I change my job, should I go to another country, should I do this, and depending on your choices it might change your life forever and that is the dilemma,” Kobborg says. “I think this is what James does in the performance, he follows his heart, he follows his instinct, and obviously when you do that, things can go wrong.”

But in this ballet, a lot goes right. Harrison James danced James on opening night two days before he was scheduled to, as a replacement for Francesco Gabriele Frola who was originally scheduled to take the honour. If a last minute addition to Wednesday’s cast, the first soloist from New Zealand showed no sign of trepidation. His James was a thoughtful study in self-absorbed introspection. Hands clasped to his chest, a glassy stare on his face, the usually affable dancer with an easy smile appeared deep in thought. But he could be a right bastard if he wanted to be, lashing out at Madge when she sat by the fire to warm herself during the wedding nuptials, and committing the sin of inhospitality. His dancing was similarly well defined: light and quick with springy jumps and leg beats that had him breezing through the air.

Also strong was Piotr Stanczyk, who masterfully danced the role of Gurn. This secondary male part, like the ballet as a whole, is 50-percent dance, 50-percent mime, and Stanczyk was equal parts actor and ballet dancer, effortlessly sailing through his variation and pulling off a few laughs at his expense when his attempt to shame James early on in the proceedings is foiled when the Sylph disappears from under the blanket he is holding. Jillian Vanstone used her pliant technique and expressive acting skills to create a heartbreaking Effie. Principal dancer Sonia Rodriguez, on the other hand, was miscast as the wicked Madge. An audience favourite, Rodriguez is a delicately boned dancer whose wispy onstage persona will no doubt serve her well when she dances the Sylph at the March 5 matinee. But with this role she lacked the coarseness and physical substance to make Madge feel like a menace. Her witch looked more demented than demonic.

Dronina, however, was a perfect choice to play the Sylph. A beautiful dancer with joyous energy and natural elegance she made the capricious and mysterious Sylphide a wonder to behold. The ballerina’s graceful porte de bras, articulate high arched feet, effortless extensions and precision went a long way in creating an otherworldly being who felt nevertheless vital and sensual, a spirit who felt engagingly robust. Propelling her forward on wings of music was the National Ballet of Canada Orchestra performing Herman Severin Løvenskjold’s original 1836 score under the baton of guest conductor Philip Ellis. Like the story of La Sylphide itself, the score is dark and light, hard and soft, discordant and harmonious. Together the dance and the music combined to create a vivid impression. A dream come true.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

1 comment:

  1. Do you know when Dronina danced with the Royal Danish Ballet? Her bio states that she only danced with the Royal Swedish Ballet and Het National Ballet in Amsterdam?