Title: When an Earthbound Lad Meets His Winged Sylph
Author: Alastair Macaulay
Date: June 16, 2009
Publisher: The New York Times
It is standard to call “La Sylphide” the prototype of Romantic ballet, but no other surviving example ends with such amazing bleakness: James, the hero of this Scottish story, sees his fiancée, Effie, walking through a glen in a bridal procession with his rival, Gurn. Then he sees the Sylphide (or sylph), for whom he recklessly deserted Effie and whose death he has just unwittingly caused, floating up to sylph heaven. He falls unconscious, and some interpreters of the role imply that he dies. Certainly he has nothing left to live for.
This dark ending of “La Sylphide,” which American Ballet Theater performs all this week at the Metropolitan Opera House, hurtles at us with brilliant surprise. All the factors that set it in motion have been arriving since the curtain went up on Act I — James and the Sylph are from different species, and that’s that — but most of the ballet is filled with airy delight and ardent yearning.
And with Scotland: Scotland the way it was conceived in the era of Romanticism, as a land where civilization confronted wildness. The names Effie and Gurn come from Walter Scott’s novel “The Heart of Midlothian.” The main story was adapted from a thoroughly Scott-ish novel, “Trilby,” by the French author Charles Nodier. At least one ingredient seems to come from “Macbeth,” which the French had just discovered.
“La Sylphide,” with its ethereal heroine dancing on point and its human hero forever trying to grasp her, changed ballet at its Parisian premiere in 1832. The version that has become internationally known in modern times is the Danish one, choreographed in 1836 by Hans Christian Andersen’s friend and contemporary August Bournonville. The music, which Bournonville commissioned, is by the Danish composer Hermann von Lovenskjold — it’s his Opus 1 — and contains quotations of “Auld Lang Syne” and Scottish reels.
This production, originally staged in 1971 by Erik Bruhn (a famous interpreter both of James and the witch Madge), is generally fine and attractive. A few inauthenticities are bothersome. Ballet Theater’s supernumeraries are a motley crew: two of them in Act I of “Giselle” last week carried spears as if they were following a Spear Carrying by Numbers course, but nobody consulted the How to Carry Bagpipes manual for Act I of “La Sylphide.” I am relieved that Effie and her fellow Scotswomen do not wear kilts (the mistake made by the majority of today’s “Sylphide” productions), but their empire-line dresses seem to have been purchased in Jane Austen’s Bath, suggesting that this Scottish farmstead houses many more ultragenteel young ladies than we can really credit.
A few other things could be improved. James has known only one Sylphide. The moment in Act II when a throng of other sylphs join her should be instantaneous. This can be one of the great moments in world drama: a Platonic shift in perception when he realizes that this ideal apparition is part of an ideal realm. She was the odd one out in his world and he loved her for that; now he suddenly realizes that he is the odd one out in her world (and that she loves him despite it).
On Monday night Natalia Osipova showed her gazellelike elevation as the Sylphide, floating in jump after jump. The cabrioles, in which she beat her legs together behind her in the air, were especially miraculous, and (as in “Giselle,” in which she made her first Ballet Theater appearance on Saturday night) the feathery circlings of one foot (in ronds de jambe sautés) made the air quiver. Above the waist her Russian training suits her less well to Bournonville’s choreography than to “Giselle”: she carries her arms and wrists with an artful elaboration of line instead of Bournonville’s ravishing simplicity. But to a degree surpassing that of many Russians, her dancing has the same pulse as the music’s.
In this respect and others, she is well teamed with the James of Herman Cornejo. The 1832 “Sylphide” created a dualist drama between the earthbound James and the winged Sylph. But Bournonville, who complained that the original role of James was just “a pedestal for the prima donna,” made James a great dance role.
When it is superbly executed — as by Mr. Cornejo — the dancing explains why James needs more than this world can give him, shows all the dangerous pride that will bring about his ruin, begins to make him akin to the Sylph, and finally shows the extent of human passion that no Sylph can know. Mr. Cornejo soars and soars again. In successive double air turns he spins right and left with equal ease, and in forward jumps he rides the air with glory. At the start of the ballet I wondered about the curiously pale tartan worn by Clan Cornejo, but by the end I wanted a kilt just like his.
“La Sylphide,” a short two-act ballet, is traditionally presented with a one-act work. (I wish this were still true of “Giselle.”) In imaginative programming, Ballet Theater combines it with Paul Taylor’s “Airs” (1980). Mr. Taylor is modern dance; Bournonville is ballet. “Airs” is American; “La Sylphide” European. The differences between the two are self-evident and enrich the evening. There are also correspondences: “Airs” is set to wonderfully sensuous ballet music that Handel wrote in London for the French dancer Marie Sallé (in the operas “Alcina” and “Ariodante”) and, as with both the Scots dances of the first act of “La Sylphide” and the sylph ensembles of the second, it has forms, ceremonies, patterns that Mr. Taylor hears and matches in his choreography. Here Blaine Hoven gives his best performance to date. (His part-bouffant haircut earlier this season was causing some alarm among Ballet Theater regulars, but has now been simplified.) And — as in many ballets — the bright, buoyant Arron Scott is exemplary.
American Ballet Theater’s season continues through July 11 at the Metropolitan Opera House; “La Sylphide” is in repertory through Saturday; (212) 362-6000, abt.org or metopera.org.