“La Sylphide” and “Napoli – Act III”
Royal Danish Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, NY
June 18, 2011
by Kathleen O’Connell
copyright © 2011 by Kathleen O’Connell
The Royal Danish Ballet is one of the world’s oldest ballet companies and—whether it’s entirely thrilled by the privilege or not—the conservator of a world-class trove of artistic treasure: the dozen or so surviving works of the great 19th century choreographer August Bournonville. Other companies occasionally program “La Sylphide” and excerpts from “Napoli”—the two Bournonville works the RDB brought to New York as part of its 2011 U.S. tour—but the opportunity to see them performed by dancers bred to the rigors of Bournonville’s unique idiom was not to be missed. One can debate the merits of the other works on offer during the engagement—Fleming Flindt’s “The Lesson,” Jorma Elo’s “Lost on Slow,” and a Bournonville pastiche stitched together by Artistic Director Nikolaj Hübbe and company principal Thomas Lund—but while just about everyone seems to have an Elo these days, only the Danes, who rarely come here on tour, really have Bournonville. Life ain’t fair.
Set in the fantasy Scotland so beloved of 19th century audiences, “La Sylphide” is a two act ballet about a supernatural being’s fatal love for a human, and it’s a marvel of concise, coherent storytelling. The particulars of Bournonville’s style—quiet, gently rounded arms placed atop an infinite variety of small, quick jumps and beats interspersed with softly held rubato balances—is the antithesis of bombast and a revelation to eyes grown accustomed to the more sharply etched and grandly-scaled styles derived from the Russian classical tradition. But the real delight of “La Sylphide” is the seamless integration of dance, mime, and theatrical effects into powerful storytelling—and, as evidenced by their performances, storytelling is something the Danes do particularly well
The plot is simple, but psychologically rich. James, a young Scotsman, abandons his fiancée Effy on their wedding day, irresistibly drawn into the forest by the entreaties of a gentle woodland fairy who has fallen in love with him but ever eludes his embrace. Madge, a seeress James had banished from his wedding feast gives him a magic scarf with which to capture the elusive sylph, and thereby gets her revenge. The delighted fairy covets the beautiful—but poisoned—scarf the moment she lays eyes on it. When James entraps her in its folds, she loses her wings and dies. Bereft of both the sylph and Effy—who has in the meantime married his rival Gurn—James collapses in a lifeless swoon. Whether he lives or dies is for us to decide.
Susanne Grinder, who danced the Sylph, floated her long, fine limbs through space with gossamer ease. She looked qualitatively different from her colleagues in Bournonville’s choreography: feather–light where they were buoyant (though a bit unsteady in arabesque). She was at her best in her death scene, where her visible transformation from a bright spirit into a broken, mortal creature—she looked suddenly, startlingly human—was heartbreaking.
Marcin Kupinski’s briskly danced James bristled with the unthinking arrogance of a young man for whom everything has gone well without much effort on his part—his solos certainly give him no trouble. He seemed less a dreamer out of sync with the quotidian than a man thrown into his first moral crisis by an encounter with an alien beauty he wants but cannot possess.
Mette Bødtcher, one of the company’s eight character dancers and a former Sylphide herself, played Madge less as a stock old crone than a once-beautiful woman whose face—and soul—have been ravaged by time and a fund of bitterness. Her wrecked regality practically demanded a backstory: who was she before and how on earth has she come to this?
Choreographed in 1836 when dancing on pointe was a newly developed technique, “La Sylphide” makes use of vividly contrasted dance vocabulary to draw a bright line between the human and fairy realms. In Act I, only the Sylph dances on pointe. Effy and her companions dance in heeled character shoes. Their brisk terre-à-terre steps are folk-inflected. The purely classical pirouettes, jétés, and arabesques are reserved for the Sylph: she’s not a woman, she's a different order of being altogether. In Act II, when James finds himself alone in the forest surrounded by her tulle-clad sisters bourréeing softly on pointe, it’s a moment of sudden, captivating beauty entirely different from anything that’s come before—and we know he’s in a magical realm.
Nor is the big Act I wedding reel there to provide a diverting interlude of local color: it limns the community to which Effy belongs and that James chooses to leave. When he catches a glimpse of the sylph and breaks from the dance’s ranks to pursue her, he disrupts the order of its patterns and leaves his bewildered fiancée stranded without a partner. It’s a judiciously placed bit of action that sums up the impact James’ obsession will have in the real world.
The program closed with Act III of “Napoli,” a non-stop display of ebullient dancing that’s the concentrated essence of joie de vivre. You don’t need to know the story of Teresina and Gennaro to understand that the whole town’s out celebrating a happy ending.
The act’s succession of solos and small ensembles were a lesson in the myriad ways Bournonville’s choreography magics the transfer of weight into an unanticipated thrill. Other styles give you the same spins, leaps and beats—though rarely in such profusion and such packed but unfussy phrases. But none better marries them to quicksilver changes in direction and tempo to send a shiver of delicious surprise down your spine. Just when you think you’ve sussed out the likely trajectory of a dancer’s center of gravity, it’s materialized someplace else entirely, while the foot you expected to see hit the floor is improbably slicing through the air. One suspects Bournonville would have found 32 fouettés in a row or a straight diagonal of brisés volés rather tedious.
The company’s current production of “Napoli” interpolates a pas de deux for Teresina and Gennaro in between the Pas de Six and the famous Tarantella. Amy Watson (Teresina) and Alban Lendorf (Gennaro) were the afternoon’s most brilliant exponents of Bournonville’s unpredictable enchaînements. Watson is an exquisitely musical dancer, and her rubato effects were as delightful as they were unmannered. The weight behind Lendorf’s plush buoyancy gives even his most fleeting contact with the floor the satisfying “click” of resolution that lets us know he’s got the wherewithal to phrase Bournonville’s fiendish combinations, not merely execute them. Alexander Staeger, who also danced Gurn in “La Syphide,” was another standout and looks to be a James in the making. If he’d had a bit more to do as Gurn, he might have stolen the show.
The RDB’s style has been described as “modest” and in Bournonville, at least, the dancers avoid exaggeration of every kind—their extensions are scaled to the choreography’s requirements, their effects are unforced, their acting is natural, and so are their smiles. If this is modesty, we could do with more of it. Even their bodies seem refreshingly plainspoken: their feet are pliant and nicely pointed, for instance, but don’t cultivate the kind of hyper-curved arch that makes audiences swoon. But even the plainspoken can be eloquent, and the company’s dancing spoke volumes about musicality, a care for storytelling, and unmannered grace. All one can say in response is, please come back soon.
copyright © 2011 by Kathleen O’Connell