The National Ballet of Canada
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
March 2, 2016
by Denise Sum
copyright © by Denise Sum 2016
"La Sylphide" is the epitome of a Romantic era ballet, with its ballet blanc, doomed hero, and fascination with the ephemeral, irrational, and supernatural. The Sylph, beyond symbolizing a feminine ideal, can stand in for many things -- a temptation, a risk, an illusion, a calling, a destiny. When staged well, it is a powerful work, compelling in the directness of its narrative and stirring in its archetypal imagery. With this new production from Johan Kobborg, Bournonville's legacy and the NBoC dancers are in good hands.
Jurgita Dronina and Harrison James in “La Sylphide.” Photo © Aleksandar Antonijevic.
Kobborg has carefully preserved the unadorned brilliance of Bournonville's style, while adding a pas de deux for James and Effie, as well as some previously omitted segments of music and mime. The mime was clearly articulated for the most part, even if certain gestures (for instance, hands outlining an hourglass shape or kissing the fingertips to indicate "beautiful") seemed a bit repetitive. He has allowed enough leeway for individual interpretations, both for the dancers and the viewers. The story of a young man with prenuptial cold feet who becomes infatuated with a mysterious other, leading to unfortunate results, is hardly unique. Yet what makes "La Sylphide" endlessly interesting to watch is the range of meanings the story can take on. It could be viewed as a tragic tale of lovers from different worlds. It can serve as a cautionary tale, reinforcing traditional values. James was wrong to chase an impossible fantasy and it cost him the love of a good woman and a life of comfort and stability. Or perhaps James's fate, while unhappy, further highlights his bravery, elevating his status as a romantic hero. He defies convention and what is expected of him in search of something transcendent. The meaning of James' journey can vary greatly depending on how the trio of women, the Sylph, Effie, and Madge are played.
On opening night, Jurgita Dronina, who recently joined the company from the Dutch National Ballet, was the Sylph. She was truly sublime in the role, with long, lingering balances, weightless jumps, and the quietest pointe shoes to add to the illusion of effortless floating. She used discretion, never straining to crank the leg higher than necessary as is so often the case these days. Her Sylph had a sweet shyness. She not only evaded James' touch, but at times avoided eye contact. Yet there was also a flirtatious sensuality as she planted the wedding ring on her own finger or wrapped herself in James' tartan. Her chilling death scene made one wish to see her Giselle. She froze and went blind, staggering unsteadily with arms outstretched before crumpling to the unfamiliar ground. It is interesting that like James, her demise comes from chasing something forbidden. In a bit of reverse psychology, James mimes that she cannot touch the scarf, which only makes her more fascinated by it.
Effie was danced by the luminous Jillian Vanstone. Her sunny demeanor and genuine affection for James make the end of Act I truly heartbreaking. She desperately throws herself towards the door after discovering James has left the manor-house, requiring all of her friends' might to contain her. When she drops her wedding veil, her body becomes completely lifeless. She still looks numb when she accepts Gurn's proposal.
Sonia Rodriguez did double duty during this run of "La Sylphide", cast in the roles of the Sylph and Madge. On this evening, she channeled her darker side as the sinister witch. She was a perfect foil to the Sylph, exerting power over James but for a malevolent cause. Her diminutive size posed some challenges, but did not take away from her commanding stage presence. Oddly, some moments from her scene in Act I elicited laughter from the audience. Perhaps the way she chugged liquor or seemed to relish in predicting bad fortune was seen as humorous or at least harmless. However, by Act II her intentions become quite clear -- James must pay for his harsh and inhospitable treatment of her. After the Sylph dies, she yanks him up by the hair to watch the wedding party of Effie and Gurn. She has already gotten her revenge and at this point her actions just verge on the sadistic. In terms of the possibility that her Madge is in love with James and feels rejected by him, if that is the case, that love is deeply repressed.
James was danced by first soloist Harrison James, stepping in for an injured Francesco Gabriele Frola. His James was clearly tormented by the impossible decision before him, choosing between the (literally) down to earth Effie and the elusive Sylph. At times, he appeared to truly struggle with how to do the right thing, and at others, he seemed completely under a spell, uncontrollably drawn towards the Sylph. He declared his love for her with seemingly little reflection. His James was a particularly volatile one, literally exploding at the sight of Madge at the fireplace. Prior to her appearance, he kept glancing at the fireplace hopefully, as that was where he last saw the Sylph. He could not contain his disappointment and rage at finding the old woman in a place that is almost sacred to him. James danced neatly and with conviction, not missing a beat in his difficult variations. He used épaulement beautifully. His port de bras could just be lowered a touch to be more in line with the modest Bournonville style.
As Gurn, Piotr Stanczyk was fairly one dimensional, on a singular mission to find some dirt on James. The corps de ballet were in fine form, particularly the sylphs in Act II. Desmond Heeley's handsome costumes and Robert Thomson's atmospheric lighting rounded out this cohesive gem of a production.