Nineteenth century story ballets tend to tell the tales of unhappy heroes, who mostly are of royal blood, pushed into arranged marriages by their parents. In one, Swan Lake, the prince is manipulated by a sorcerer’s daughter into breaking a vow. In another, Giselle, a duke is saved from being danced to death by a regiment of ghosts of jilted brides by none other than the ghost of the peasant girl this thoughtless youth or coldheaded cad had deceived.
La Sylphide, in Danish choreographer August Bournonville’s 1836 staging of the 1832 Romantic ballet, contains no aristocrats, or enchanted princesses, or ghosts. Fantasy, yes—witchcraft abounds, and drives the plot; and the Sylph (or woodland spirit) of the title is one of the most challenging of the great ballerina roles to dance, dramatically and technically. Actually, every role in this ballet, from the Sylph, to her sister sylphs, to James, the farmer hero who dreams of her on his wedding day, to Effie, his bride-to-be, to Gurn, his friend, to Madge the witch, and the corps of Scottish villagers, demands fine-tuned technical skill and the ability of a method actor to become the real people that inhabit Bournonville’s creative world.
On Saturday, Feb. 18, at Keller Auditorium, the dancers of Oregon Ballet Theatre will perform the company premiere of La Sylphide. OBT’s versatile dancers earned their Bournonville chops in 2018 when they danced the complete Napoli, a very different ballet from Sylphide. Napoli, rooted in Neapolitan Roman Catholic culture, is much more typical of the great choreographer’s work. The first and third acts take place on the city’s harbor, where Bournonville observed Neapolitan folk dance while traveling in Italy, and the second in the Bay of Naples, in a deep-sea fantasy involving a sea monster and the “drowned” young women he imprisons in his “grotto.”
In Napoli Xuan Cheng, who gives her final performances with OBT as the Sylph, immersed herself so deeply in the role of Teresina, the feisty Neapolitan girl in love with a fisherman not considered wealthy enough for her by her widowed mother, that she seemed to become her. We gasped when she flung herself into the bay after it appeared her lover was lost at sea; we held our breath when she grappled with the monster; we cheered when all ended “happily ever after” in a joyously danced finale.
La Sylphide does not end well for either the Sylph or James. For its chief protagonists it’s a tragedy; for the secondary characters–Gurn, James’s friend, who truly loves Effie the bride and marries her–it’s not so bad. Sylphide is considered Bournonville’s only tragedy; there is nothing else like it in his repertoire, which focused on ordinary people to whom audiences could relate. And perhaps most important, enjoy. Here’s what the late Tobi Tobias, passionate Bournonville expert, and my very good friend, had to say about it in a 1979 Dance Magazine essay:
“For all the richness of the world Bournonville creates, there are worlds apart that he pointedly ignored. Missing from Bournonville’s theater is any sustained grappling with the elements of the erotic and demonic with which most of the major Romantic inventors intuitively connected—and reveled in. … Only in La Sylphide, which belongs to a relatively early phase of his choreographic development, does Bouornonville come to grips with these subjects: In what can be taken as a parable of the artist’s pursuit of his muse, James forsakes domestic security assured him in marrying Effie—his sweetheart in the prosaic world—to pursue the Sylph who represents the other-world of dreams and forbidden desires. He does so to his peril. It is only in this, of all his known ballets, that Bournonville allows an evil (personified by Madge, the witch who may in fact be the Sylph’s alter-ego) virulent enough to produce tragic consequences.”
“I LOVE ALL MY SYLPHS,” Frank Andersen, who with his wife, Eva Kloborg, has been working with OBT to fine-tune this ballet since early January, said as we entered the rehearsal studio a week or so ago. He gestured toward Carly Wheaton, who was warming up at the barre; Jessica Lind, who was stretching under the sunlit windows; and Cheng, who bids farewell to OBT with these performances. (She’s been splitting this season betwen OBY and Hong Kong Ballet, where she is the new ballet mistress and principal dancer.) Eva Burton was out ill that day, but Andersen was hoping she’d be able to dance the second weekend. So am I. In Napoli she danced throughout in several roles with enormous presence, sparkle and authority.
Andersen knows a thing or two about Sylphs and how to be them. He and Kloborg, and former Royal Danish Ballet dancers who are part of their cadre of repetiteurs, have staged Sylphide at least 20 times, all over the world, including in China and in Japan, where the couple maintain a home in Tokyo. “Be ambitious,” he called to the dancers after clapping his hands to start rehearsals. As the rehearsal proceeds, Andersen repeatedly tells the dancers that if they don’t believe in these characters, these people, the audience won’t, either. Just as frequently, he exhorts them to greater control, greater restraint in their actual dancing. At one point he cautions Brian Simcoe, who is first-cast James, to slow down a bit as he beats his feet in the air. In Bournonville ballets, dancers don’t show off the way they do in such Petipa ballets as Swan Lake, where audiences count the ballerina’s fouettes without taking in what they represent.
Watching Kloborg simultaneously be the bride’s mother (former OBT dancer Elizabeth Burden, who dances the character role in all performances, couldn’t be there that day) and coach the dancers in the musically timed mime made me wish I had seen her dance. I told her so during a five-minute break. “I danced every female role in this ballet,” she replied. “The little girl in act one, Madge, Effie, the Sylph, everyone.” After the break, when Zuzu Metzler, dancing Effie, runs sobbing into her arms, Kloborg makes my own eyes sting with the anguished expression on her face.
From her first playful entrance to her agonized death, Cheng’s Sylph amused me, annoyed me—she’s extremely manipulative!—and broke my heart. She calls Bournonville technique “another language” and it’s one she speaks extremely well, from the top of her head to the tips of her rapidly moving toes. An intruder in James’s home on his wedding day, she leads him to her forest home, where he in turn becomes the intruder of her domain, and trying to wrap her in a poisoned veil given him by Madge the witch, he causes her to die a slow and painful death. I’ll not soon forget the agonized twitching of Cheng’s hands, the muscles in her face, and the straining of her beautiful neck in that rehearsal studio, which I have every confidence she’ll be able to project from the stage of the Keller Auditorium.
As for Madge, rehearsal directors Lisa Kipp and Jeffrey Stanton alternate in the role, and both are pretty frightening, reading palms, cursing James, pounding their sticks as they stalk across the stage. In fine Bournonville tradition, Stanton has modeled his interpretation on that of a predecessor in the role, Val Caniparoli, who did it in San Franciso Ballet’s production when Stanton was dancing in the corps years ago. OBT has a connection to Caniparoli, too: The company’s precursor, Ballet Oregon, performed his Street Songs, a ballet I’d love to see again, and OBT has danced his Hamlet and Ophelia pas de deux and, most recently, his Lambarena.
In the very important role of Gurn, a part that outgoing interim artistic director Peter Franc loved dancing when he was with Houston Ballet (“he is the nice guy with the big heart but is stuck in the friend zone, never getting the attention that James gets, all while being the only character that is in the know of what is going on”), Christopher Kaiser was wonderfully outraged and frantic and tender in rehearsal. Bailey Shaw, whose dancing of the Choleric variation in Balanchine’s Four Temperaments was an example of the kind of organic acting Bournonville requires, alternates.
This will be Franc’s final production as interim artistic director: Choregrapher Danielle Rowe takes over as permanent A.D. on Feb. 27, right after La Sylphide closes. Danish composer Herman Lovenskjold’s score will be played live at all performances of Sylphide by the OBT orchestra. Performances continue through Feb. 25; be sure to check casting for specific performances on the OBT website.