Either/Or ... neither/nor
by Stephen Arnold
March 5, 2005 -- Wang Theatre, Boston
Romantic Ideals lure the willing into looking at the world as if from outside. And from that airy prospect humanity and its imperatives disappear. The fate of Bournonville’s James warns against such a lure. Caught suddenly in the questionable circumstance of: either he ‘marries’ the Sylph - a sweet siren of Nature, or he honors his commitment to marry Effie - a human being like him.
James blinks. And his resolve, wrecked by the Sylph’s charms and corroded by regret ,gives way to capriciousness. Willfully, he abandons Effie for the Sylph. Shortly, he loses them both, and finally any prospect at all. Whether James at curtain close merely swooned or died at the command of the demonic Madge, he was in either case lost to the world. And so by the example of James, Bournonville shows that the sensual and demonic interests permitted by Romantic Ideals disrupt at best, and kill at worst.
August Bournonville along with writers Soren Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen, sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen, physicist Hans Christian Orsted, and architect Christian Frederik Hansen, to name a few, constitute Denmark’s Golden Age of Arts and Sciences. While the qualities of harmony and unity were fundamental to the Biedermeier ethos of that Golden Age and primary for Bournonville, they were anathema for Kierkegaard. Yet, in Either/Or, Kierkegaard describes the impossibility of living life as an aesthete, the sort of life James embraced by yielding to the winsome Sylph’s beckon. Moreover, in Act II, the Sylph’s lacewing-like beating and flitting about from interest to interest, from leaf and berry to butterfly to bird’s nest and finally to the attractive shimmer of the fatal scarf accents the frailty and futility of finding a harmonious life through sensual pleasure alone.
In his autobiography, Bournonville wrote, “It is the mission of art in general, and the theatre in particular, to intensify thought, to elevate the mind, and to refresh the senses.” The Boston Ballet production of "La Sylphide" easily meets Bournonville’s imperative. The air-light combinations, flowing patterns, and elegant sculptural groupings performed by the Ballet’s corps of Sylphs banished the dissonance of effort and explained Lovenskjold’s brass rich harmonies and the pastoral affect of woodwinds and strings. Additionally, the décor’s John Constable-like Scottish vista, witch’s den, and forest glade coupled with the scenic and characterizing aspects of the lighting design to create the moral space of the ballet.
Although in Act II, the Sylphs either sparkled like diamonds in their sunny glade or incandesced in the funerary moonlight, in Act I, the Sylph shined like the Evening Star - only in twilight. And by this, the Sylph’s half-light signature, the lighting design bears out Bournonville’s point that his sweet siren of Nature is yet connected to the bitter malice of the mid-night lit Madge. The amoral Sylph and demonic Madge are neither dialectically opposed nor two sides of a coin, but rather are two heads of a moral Hydra spawned by Romantic Ideals.
Ah, but the Sylph seems so singularly human! Fashioned in a human geometry of feminine form, she speaks to James (and all who observe her) in human ways about human things. In a seamless blend of gestures such as beating feet, delicate attitude turns on pointe, and innocent smile, and the mime common to the commedia dell’ arte tradition she shows who she is and how she feels. The Sylph’s avowal of love, confession of sadness, and readiness to protect, for example, convinces James (and everyone else) of her humanity and that makes her compelling. And when danced by the transcendent Larissa Ponomarenko, the attractive power of the Sylph defies measure. Who could blame James for following her?
Edited by Staff.
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