First there was silence. Then the audience rose to its feet, cheering, applauding, at the Keller Auditorium. The curtain had just slowly descended last Saturday night on the heartbroken figure of James, the unwitting killer of his own dream, and on Xuan Cheng’s final performance with Oregon Ballet Theatre, in the title role of August Bournonville’s La Sylphide.
Cheng, and the members of the company she has led as principal ballerina since Alison Roper’s retirement in 2014, earned those cheers and then some. I didn’t see every cast, but on opening and closing nights every dancer, from Cheng and Brian Simcoe in the lead roles to the youngest girls dancing in the Act One reel, delighted me, moved me, amused me as they told this wordless tale in a complicated, nuanced ballet language that can be difficult to speak.
Cheng, of course, “speaks” many languages, from the hard-edged precision of Balanchine’s Dewdrop in his Nutcracker, to the muscular stridency of William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, to the angular jerkiness of the same choreographer’s The Second Detail. At OBT she’s been a betrayed swan-woman in two versions of Swan Lake, first in Christopher Stowell’s, then in Kevin Irving’s; and a nuanced Aurora in Stowell’s The Sleeping Beauty, the role she considers the most difficult because of the stamina it requires. “You’re on stage for a long time,” she told me at the artist’s reception for Pas de Trois, photographer Jingzi Zao’s exhibition at The Armory, in which Cheng and Simcoe collaborated with the photographer in creating a series of images of these long-time dancing partners making their own choreography.
Dance historians, however, and some ballerinas, consider the Sylph to be the most challenging role in the ballet repertoire, and Cheng, who took up her new position as principal dancer and ballet mistress with the Hong Kong Ballet last fall, did want to end her career with OBT dancing this role.
Why is it so hard? Technically it’s a killer, calling for fleet footwork; easy, controlled jumps; fluid port de bras; and the engagement of every muscle in the body, including those in the face. Plus–no small thing–the conviction that the Sylph, a woodland spirit, is real. On opening and closing nights, Cheng became that creature of the forest, mischievous, seductive, flirtatious, manipulative, elusive in Act One. And all of that in Act Two, as she leads the besotted James on a chase to her own domain. En route, Madge, the village witch, stops James and gives him the means to catch the Sylph. She doesn’t tell him, of course, that the cloth trap is poisoned and will bestow on her an agonizing death, one that Xuan danced compellingly and believably, using the muscles in her fingers, her wrists, her face, her beautiful neck, and her feet until she achieved that final stillness; hence, the silence when the curtain rang down.
That commitment to whatever she’s dancing has made Cheng an artistic director’s dream, and a choreographer’s, too. Note that she performed the title role for OBT in Hong Kong Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre’s Alice (in wonderland) in 2018. And BodyVox’s Jamey Hampton told me recently that she was an enormous help to him and BodyVox co-leader Ashley Roland when they made Big Shoes on OBT a few years ago: She was willing to try anything, including leading some of the dancers in a slide down a big ramp, which scarcely requires the well-honed technique of a ballerina.
More seriously, I interviewed former OBT artistic director Kevin Irving for a profile on Cheng for Dance International keyed to the 2018 performances of Napoli, and this is what he said about her:
“[She is] really and truly invested, mind, body, and soul in learning and growing with every opportunity. … Every day. She sets a perfect example for the entire company—and is a total sweetheart at the same time.”
In a filmed tribute to Cheng, shown on Saturday night between the final curtain and the bows and bouquets, Stowell spoke of her performance of Micaela, a role he made for her in his Carmen, capitalizing on her enthusiasm for life and what he views as her steadfast faith that everything will turn out all right. Peter Franc, OBT’s interim artistic director, who took his own last bows in that position on Saturday night, paid tribute to Cheng’s prodigious talent and her ability to learn the language of British-born choreographer Ben Stevenson, whose Three Preludes he programmed in 2021.
Special kudos to Franc for his hard work and thoughtful programming these past two years, as well as his additions to the company roster. Also to Lisa Kipp for her fine-tuned performance of Madge the Witch, arguably a principal role in Sylphide, since she drives the action. I’d like to toss a bouquet or two to Jessica Lind’s Effy, Christopher Kaiser’s Gurn, Elizabeth Burden’s Anna, all the sylphs in Act II, and to Michael Mazzola for his lights. I wish profoundly I had seen Lind’s Sylph, Bailey Shaw’s Gurn, new principal Charles-Louis Yoshiyama’s James, Makino Hayashi’s Madge–in short, every cast.
The orchestra played very well opening night under the directorship of guest conductor Enrique Carreon-Robledo, and even better closing night.