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La Sylphide at the SIFF: Romantic Ballet through a Russian Lens

Written by Steve Ha

Ekaterina Krysanova and Yan Godovsky.
Photo by Yelena Fetisova
SIFF’s latest presentation of ‘Ballet in Cinema’ on October 15, 2012, took audiences on a journey well into the early 19thcentury, when the Romantic era of ballet began its period of glorification. After seeing legendary ballerina Marie Taglioni perform a new ballet entitled La Sylphide at the Paris Opera, Danish balletmaster August Bournonville choreographed his own version on his favorite pupil Lucile Grahn in 1836, with a new score by Herman Severin Løvenskiold (Jean-Madeleine Schneitzhoeffer composed the original for the Paris Opera, which Bournonville intended to use but couldn’t afford the rights to). Bournonville’s version has remained marvelously intact, carefully preserved by generations of dancers within the Royal Danish Ballet, and it, along with other works by Bournonville, are the hallmark of authenticity when it comes to Romantic ballet—others, including the La Sylphide Taglioni appeared in, have been lost or eroded over time such that only fragments of the originals remain, while the Bournonville steps are steadfast. Hence, to view La Sylphide is to gaze upon a treasure of ballet history.

Still, change is inevitable, and in staging a new production of La Sylphide for the Bolshoi Theatre, Danish dancer Johan Kobborg reconciles the precarious line of straying from tradition while reinventing a classic. The story remains largely the same—James, a young farmer, falls in love with a Sylph despite his betrothal to a lass named Effie. Madge, a witch James is unkind to, makes a prediction that James and Effie will never marry, and in James’s friend Gurn, Effie find her husband. Though James is outraged, he pursues the Sylph that has enchanted him (and conveniently stolen his wedding ring) into the forest, where he encounters the Sylph’s enclave of fairies. Meanwhile, Madge has brewed a malevolent potion to produce a scarf that she tricks James into thinking will enable him to capture the elusive Sylph, but it spells her doom instead—when he wraps the scarf around her, he is finally able to touch her, but her wings fall off and she dies. Grief-stricken and overwhelmed by guilt when he sees the marriage processional of Effie and Gurn, James too, perishes. Curiously, the victorious villain briefly reveals a bit of the iconic white tulle skirt of the fairies underneath her mundane garb, to suggest that she too was once a Sylph. The presentation of Madge as beautiful woman (and a former Sylph) rather than the stereotypical hag gives her an interesting motive and reinterprets La Sylphide ever so slightly, such that modern audiences may find interest in a more human character rather than a fantastical crone.

Irina Zibrova as Madge.
Photo by Yelena Fetisova
Ekaterina Krysanova danced as a charming and perhaps too flirtatious Sylph, though she was delightful nonetheless. As James, Vyacheslav Lopatin seemed aloof, which is somewhat true to the character, and showed brilliance in his lively solos. In a peculiar turn of events, it was Anna Rebetskaya’s saccharine portrayal of Effie that melted hearts, complemented by her elfin looks and dainty facial expressions. Denis Savin proved himself to be an endearing Gurn, and Irina Zibrova’s Madge was both seductive and fiendish. Despite some mismatching within the cast, the dancing was sublime, a terrific display of the Bolshoi’s refinement. While the Bolshoi doesn’t dance La Sylphide as the Royal Danish Ballet would, it is a meeting of titans when these two traditions merge, with fascinating results. Vastly different training methods give the Bolshoi’s La Sylphide a unique look, where the fluid arms and flexible backs contrast greatly with the Danish, who hold their arms in basic positions, jumping from the legs and core muscles, rather than using their arms to propel them into the air. Far from blasphemy, it’s wonderful to see such differences—after all, Bournonville’s La Sylphide most assuredly diverged from what he had seen at the Paris Opera. And incredibly, what he had seen so long ago is still relevant and just as engaging today.

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