La Sylphide is, of all of Bournonville ballets, the most famous and widely performed by companies around the world. The secret for the success of this ballet is, first of all, a historical one. La Sylphide was first performed in 1836, with Lucile Grahm as the spirited creature. Thus, the ballet remains the oldest in the repertoire of any ballet company, as the original Sylphide dated 1831 and with choreography by Filippo Taglioni for his daughter Marie, was lost from the repertoire. Everybody knows that the original Sylphide started in a way the movement that today we know as Romantic Ballet and that this movement was going to be the starting point for ballet to become an established art form within the performing arts. Therefore, the importance of Bournonville’s ballet can never be underestimated. Bournonville had seen Taglioni’s interpretation in Paris and was very influenced by her interpretation when creating his own version of the ballet.
The structure of the piece is also paradigmatic of an era. Divided in two acts, the first one featured the colour and folk tradition of national dances, Scottish in this instance, and the second act introduced the other-wordly element in the story, the forests, the sylphs and the dream like quality of the story.
The Royal Danish Ballet has kept this ballet in the repertoire since its opening and credit must be given to a company that has managed to keep a ballet for such a long period of time. Recordings from the beginning of the twentieth century also show that the choreography has been maintained in an astonishing form.
On this occasion, the ballet was receiving its 783rd performance! And the leads were danced by Thomas Lund as James, Gudrun Bojesen as La Sylphide, Tina Hojlund as Effy and Nicolai Hansen as Gurn. Of course, especial mention must be given to the two character artists appearing in the ballet; Kirsten Simone as Anna and Lis Jeppesen as Madge.
The company was presenting their recent new version as devised by Nicolai Hübbe in 2003. It basically sticks to the original concept and choreography, or at least to the one that Hübbe used to dance during his time with the company, except for a few minor changes in the first act that, to be honest, I found unnecessary and dramatically confusing. I especially found extremely puzzling the moment when James is dancing with the Sylph and Gurn enters the room and, apparently sees them. La Sylphide goes to the armchair and James hides her while Gurn calls for the rest of the household to come and reveals the empty chair to his and James’s shock. He then tries to explain to the rest of the guests that he has seen a winged creature in the room and everybody takes him for a fool. Hübbe has changed that scene and when Gurn reveals the empty chair, there is no shock in either him or James. The mime has been cut out and the proceedings continue. Apparently, the reason for this is that maybe Gurn does not see the Sylph, as this may be nothing but an imaginary vision of James’s. A good concept, but not one that works dramatically onto the stage. Why does Gurn call the rest of the people in the house to witness? Why does he reveal the empty armchair?
There were a few more changes like this, but overall the production is very similar to the one the Royal Danish Ballet used to dance before.
When it comes to the actual interpretations, I found Thomas Lund’s James magnificent. What a wonderful dancer Lund is! Not only does he have the dramatic depth to make the role his own, but he also has the Bournonville technique and style at his best. It is not only that he jumps high and beats well, it is the way he accompanies his movements with the head, his eyes, his hands, the total easiness of his manner…
Bojesen’s Sylph was more problematic for me. She was just too earthy a creature. I was told that that was the originality of her interpretation and I can see that, but in a production that apparently seems to emphasise the fact that James maybe simply daydreaming, I had difficulty in accepting this interpretation. However, and having said that, her second act was very good and her death scene was extremely moving.
As for the character roles, Lis Jeppesen was an evil witch that, though not as charismatic as Sorella Englund in her breathtaking interpretation as recorded in the eighties, manages to make her final scene charged with hatred and power. Kirsten Simone as Anna, a minor role, was simply magnificent. She only had to walk and your eyes followed her everywhere, marking a unique artist on stage. Hansen as Gurn had the technical ability, but not the characterisation of the role and Hojlund as Effy was very good, very earthy and charming.
Just a word about the female corps the ballet in the second act, as it appeared a bit out of synchronisation with each other and not very technically strong. Very disappointing as a whole, as it does not make justice to the soloists and principals in the company. It seems the company is very tired because of the pace of the festival, but, even then, there is cause for concern in a corps that lacks the homogeneity and technical strength that this one showed.
On the other hand, the company’s interpretation of the Gigue in the first act was fantastic. It shows Bournonville’s masterful command of folk dance, in this case Scottish dance, at its best.
Finally, the new costumes and scenery were fine, though not a major improvement from the previous production. The forest in the second act is really ugly and it looks more in keeping with a cartoon rather than Romantic ballet.
Overall a good performance, though perhaps due to the high expectations created by the festival, not a truly great one.