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Royal Danish Ballet

The Bournonville Festival --    'La Sylphide'

by Cassandra

June 9, 2005 -- Royal Theatre, Copenhagen

The first time I saw “La Sylphide” it was danced by the Royal Danish Ballet, and with the possible exception of a POB performance, that first time hasn’t been matched since. So it was a wonderful experience for me to sit in that beautiful theatre in Copenhagen and see the ballet where it was first performed, even if visually it was not the most attractive or the most apt version I have seen.

Perhaps of all the ballets I saw during the Bournonville Festival this, the one I am most familiar with, has proved the most difficult to write about. The ballet completely revolves around the central character of the Sylphide herself and on this occasion she was danced by Caroline Cavallo; a dancer totally new to me. Well, not quite new as I had caught a glimpse of her in rehearsal the day before and what a heart-stopping glimpse it was to see this creature of the air with her perfect arms of unbelievable softness and her total absorption in her work, oblivious of her audience of the world’s ballet press in what I imagine is usually a private working environment.

When I saw Ms Cavallo’s name on the cast sheet the next day, I was overjoyed at the prospect of seeing her in the role of the Sylphid,e as I rightly guessed she possesses all the qualities the role requires. So why is it so difficult to write about what I saw? Because her performance was so intensely moving and because of the spiritual quality of her dancing that makes any description of it inadequate. “La Sylphide” is such a well known ballet, certainly the most well known of Bournonville’s works, that everyone seems to have a pre conceived idea of how the role should be danced, but in the future, for me at any rate, all the performances I see will be overshadowed by my memory of Caroline Cavallo. Frankly I was astonished to discover that Ms Cavallo isn’t a Dane, she is in fact American by birth, but watching her proves that the Bournonville style can be assimilated successfully by an adult dancer.

Cavallo’s sylph is very playful, and slightly arch in the beginning; when she teases James you feel she’s done this kind of thing before. As her partner Mads Blangstrup makes a rather stolid James, not the sort of Scotsman liable to run off after a supernatural being, or indeed to believe in such creatures in the first place; he looks as much exasperated by the sylph as beguiled. In the role of Gurn, Morten Eggert danced with brio and was clearly so besotted with James’s neglected Effie that in the end you couldn’t help thinking that the right man got the girl.

James of course ends with nothing, only an implied madness after he inadvertently kills his sylph. Cavallo’s death scene was the most heart breaking I’ve ever witnessed: after her wings have fallen off and she starts to go blind she reaches out to the audience with a gesture so sad and lovely that it brought tears to my eyes. She is the only ballerina I’ve seen who has transformed this rather delicate work into a tragedy.

Aspects of the production bothered me, as I felt that the wild Scottish highlands had been inappropriately prettified and the witches in particular didn’t put across the sense of evil that I’ve seen in other versions. And if the corps de ballet didn’t possess clockwork precision, then it didn’t worry me because at the heart of the work was that transcendent performance by Caroline Cavallo – a thing of beauty to be long remembered.

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