Lost on Slow and Sylfiden
March 28, 2008
In one of the finest programs I've seen yet from the Royal Danish Ballet, the company performed the newest piece in the repertoire, and one of the oldest. It's often difficult to find a companion piece for 'Sylfiden' (La Sylphide) because while the ballet is too short for a whole evening, it's too long to pair with many single act pieces. Jorma Elo's "Lost on Slow", which is neither lost nor slow, is a perfect fit for the 'before the sylphs' slot. This was my first exposure to Elo, with my memory being that reviews of his pieces for other companies were decidedly mixed. Based on this ballet, there's no question about Elo's talent - he's exciting, original, fresh and has a great eye for choosing the right dancers for his style.
The piece, set to music by Vivaldi, is a 20-minute marathon for both dancers and the solo violinist (the outstanding Mikkel Futtrup, making - I believe - his debut in the solo). The stage is obliquely lit (Thomas Bek Jensen) by smoky light pouring in through a slit that expands as the two sections of the backdrop split apart horizontally.
Both Elo's choreographic palette and Annette Nørgaard's stunning costumes suggest at classic ballet, but with an entirely modern outlook. The trio of women are clad utterly gorgeous classical pancake tutus - metallic toned with shades of blue or red woven into the design - tiara like headpieces, and soft slippers. Opposite them, then men are shiny pants - metallic or blue hued, with sleeveless metallic tunic tops.
Silence starts the piece, a single dancer (Kizzy Howard) spasmodically moving and stopping. As the first strains of Vivaldi emanate from the orchestra pit, the rest of the dancers come alive. From there, Elo splits up his ballet into a series of vignettes - a solo here, the full sextet, then a trio or a duo. His choreography is grounded in the classical, but Elo's movement draws from his background in Graham and Cunningham styles. Limbs are often held stiffly at angles, moved as if the doll in Coppelia, arms fluttering. The effect is heightened by keeping the women in soft shoes despite the tutus - without the restriction of blocky pointe shoes, the women can create different shapes out of their bodies. Many might consider pointe shoes the very definition of ballet, but here one often didn't even notice their absence. Additionally, the RDB dancers have gorgeous feet, but outside of class one rarely gets to see the women's feet in soft shoes, so it was a welcome change to see their lines unencumbered by pointe shoes.
What really stands out here is Elo's choice of cast- intriguingly enough (for this cast) all non-Danish. Amy Watson, the newest principal, is the senior female dancer, and the piece suits her crisp power. Vivaldi's music can reach near hectic crescendos, but Watson has the fast feet and control to make every position stand out despite the speed of the steps. Alba Nadal and Kizzy Howard completed the female trio; both are dancers perfectly suited to the blend of classic and contemporary.
However, it was the men who made the biggest impression. Whilst he may have looked just a bit out of his comfort zone in 'Don Quixote', Tim Matiakis seems to made for Elo. Unburdened by the need to create a specific character, he could focus on the dance itself. And focus he did, putting his full power and energy into every sequence. Christopher Rickert, one of the emerging talents in the corps, seemed to come into his own here, at one point soaring into a breathtakingly high double-rotation jump.
The real star of the evening - and one of the brightest talents in the company, I think - was Charles Andersen. Trained at the Anaheim Ballet and the Royal Ballet School, Andersen joined the company two years ago, and at just 20 (21?), already has impressive technique and stage presence. His name suggests at Danish heritage, and he has the tall, long limbed physique shared by many of the Danes in the company. Andersen's elegant lines are matched by an expressive face and hands. With a body near perfect for ballet, he shines in both adagio and fast paced bravura dancing, plus appears to be a capable partner. He reminds me much of Mads Blangstrup, both having a dance style that mixes technical skill with extreme, flowing expressiveness. Thus far, I have only seen Andersen in non-Bournonville pieces, so I will be interested to see how he fares in Bournonville when the repertoire returns in future seasons.
The evening's Sylfiden was solidly danced, if not the finest performance ever given at the Royal Theatre. This was the 802nd performance of the company's signature work, and the final performance of Sylfiden prior to the gala farewell (as a dancer) for Nikolaj Hübbe next Wednesday.
While I can't fault the dancing - two big gripes. One, whilst it may be partially due to lack of time to work on costumes, something MUST be done about the overly long kilts in 'La Sylphide'. Blangstrup, as James, was the only dancer who appeared to have paid any attention to the instructions given about the appropriate length. Kilts should hang just to the top of the knee - mid kneecap at the longest - and longer kilts look silly, totally un-authentic and flap around oddly during the dancing. No excuses - and the worst offenders were the ones who should know better - Julien Ringdahl, Alexander Stæger and Fernando Mora. Yes, shorter kilts do mean more is visible during the dancing, but only James and Gurn have any substantial solos, and the black briefs worn under the kilts cover more than many complete costumes!
In addition, while the orchestra sounded fine, I've never heard a performance with more rustling of papers, items dropped and general non-music noise from the pit. Please - Løvemskjold's score is one of the finest - it doesn't need to be marred by extraneous noise.
The performance was led by Gudrun Bojesen and Mads Blangstrup. Bojesen is a rather earthly Sylphide, but gently playful and utterly earnest. One of the company's finest Bournonville technicians, Bojesen has the delicacy of foot and soft, but elegantly supported port de bras that are so classic of Bournonville.
This evening showed off Mads Blangstrup's balletic gifts. Technically, this wasn't his finest performance of the role; he's still not long returned from an extended absence due to injury. Yet, when it comes to emotional power, he has no equal - at least that I've seen. Emotions flicker across his face and through his body like lightning bolts - the tentative groom to be, the ecstatic smile of the man enraptured by the Sylph, and the utter, inconsolable grief of one who has condemned his beloved to death. The sheer intensity of the emotion Blangstrup is able to convey is breathtaking, and the drama comes to height in his penultimate battle with Lis Jeppesen's Madge. [Jeppesen, a slight dancer, seems to grow when she embodies the character of Madge.]
In their final confrontation, the two come face to face, each with arms upraised in anger. There is a brief pause before Madge wins the confrontation, James collapsing at her feet. The tension was electric in these interminable seconds, fueled by an invisible, but palpable connection radiating from the tense muscles and two sets of eyes locked on each other. In just a few seconds, Jeppesen and Blangstrup conveyed a novel's worth of emotion. The ability to create such a moment is special gift that only a few dancers possess. The depth of the characterisations is all the more evident in rehearsal, when devoid of almost all props, costumes and sets, the story and the emotion are as clear as ever.
As ever, the female corps de ballet is at its best in La Sylphide. This was neither the finest nor quietest performance, but the unity of the corps is beautiful. In particular, in the final sequence marked by slow raising and lowering of arms, there seemed to be single inhalation and exhalation controlling each and every arm. Much credit should be given to the dancers and the coaches.
As a note, this performance come the day after the release of Anne Middleboe Christensen's new book 'Finding the Syphide', a gorgeous volume which is the source of all information on 'La Sylphide'. In addition the extensive text, there are beautiful black and white images, all taken in the course of one day's rehearsal and performance of 'La Sylphide' with Blangstrup opposite Caroline Cavallo. The text is all in Danish, and unfortunately, as a result, the book is not likely to be available outside of Denmark except by special order. The cost is around $60, but well worth it for the quality of pictures and the extensive text on the ballet.
Another note - in a moment of procrastination, I did a search to find the names for the tartans used in this production. James and his family are in Murray of Atholl and Gurn in a Dress Macleod and Effy in a MacIver.
Finally, kudos again to Henrik Vagn Christensen, who is one of the top ballet conductors around.