The performers must be so deeply invested in what they are doing that we are caught up in the narrative as its cobwebs are brushed away.
“Bournonville Divertissements” and La Sylphide, performed by the New York City Ballet at the David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, closed. The same program will be performed at Saratoga Performing Arts Center (the company’s summer ‘home’) on July 15, 17, and 18.
Giselle, performed by American Ballet Theatre, Metropolitan Opera House, through May 28.
by Janine Parker
In a recent story about American Ballet Theatre’s current spring season, artistic director Kevin McKenzie told National Public Radio’s Kim Kokich that though this is the company’s 75th anniversary, the scheduled repertory represents business as usual for ABT—and, in fact, for most ballet companies these days. And McKenzie thinks that this format is inspired by Ballet Theatre’s example. The celebrated troupe’s mission from its early days has been to present the classic ballets from the nineteenth century—favorites which include the Romantic era ballets La Sylphide and Giselle and Classical era ballets such as Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and Don Quixote—but also shorter “one-acts” by twentieth-century choreographic legends such as Antony Tudor, Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins and, the co-founder of New York City Ballet, George Balanchine.
Although Ballet Theatre’s repertoire is stuffed with the lavish, full-length story ballets and the New York City Ballet’s with the great abstract masterworks of Balanchine, these two giants, like other large ballet companies worldwide, must continuously work to find the right balance of honoring the past while also moving forward. They both court younger choreographers; Alexei Ratmansky has created works for both (he is now ABT’s Artist in Residence), while Christopher Wheeldon and Justin Peck continue to offer fresh and sometimes brilliant new ballets for NYCB. Though neither company wants to become a “museum,” both understand the importance of the older ballets, of respecting legacy. In an ideal world, this means that when masterworks are staged they are well dusted and plumped and spit-shined: smart directors never take the classics, nor their audiences, for granted. Happily, as NYCB’s May 16 matinee presentation of La Sylphide (a company premiere) and ABT’s May 23 matinee performance of Giselle proved, the respective directors of the two companies, Peter Martins and McKenzie, have staged these oldies-but-goodies with the care due them.
La Sylphide is filled with familiar stock-Romantic era types (the hero, James, is a brooding, poetic Scotsman yearning for something more than the same old, same old; the Sylph that he sets his sights on is a beautiful but ultimately unattainable creature). The piece is particularly notable because the original production, choreographed in 1832 by Filippo Taglioni, is credited as being the first “serious” ballet in which a dancer (Taglioni’s daughter, Marie) performed entirely en pointe. Though the evolution of classical ballet occurred over several centuries, the Romantic era ballets represent the biggest shift: the wooly pomp and circumstance of early ballet in the 17th and 18th century European courts was swept away,making room for ballet as we know it today.
The Taglioni version, however, was a victim of the pre-YouTube days; ballets could be “lost” if they fell out of the repertory. Although in 1972 Pierre Lacotte mounted a reconstruction of the original, the majority of contemporary La Sylphide performances are based on the 1836 production choreographed by the Danish dancer, teacher, and choreographer August Bournonville. This version has never gone out of the Danish repertoire, so it’s been passed down from one generation to the next. Martins, alum of both the school and company of the Royal Danish Ballet, is one of the many heirs who have staged the ballet and, like a good and humble son, he proclaims that the only thing he’s changed is the intermission (by taking it out).
Storyline aside, the two Sylphides are surprisingly different. The Bournonville, set to music by the Norwegian-born Herman Severin Løvenskiold (for these performances the City Ballet orchestra was led by guest conductor Henrik Vagn Christensen) comes off as part fairy tale, part cartoon—a kind of Hans Christian Andersen/Walt Disney mash-up—while the Taglioni/Lacotte, with music by the French composer Jean Madeleine Schneitzhöeffer, is darker, with hints of sex and violence more akin to the Brothers Grimm.
The Danish version presents the narrative with the simplicity associated with the Bournonville dancing style itself: direct and (seemingly) simple, devoid of flash. The way in which the dancers execute Bournonville petit allégro (quick and small jumping sequences), with arms mostly held low and curved in front, reflects an honesty of technique that can be freeing or restraining, both for the dancer and the audience. Likewise pirouettes, which in a Bournonville ballet are often landed in no-place-to-hide fifth positions (rather than, say, a more forgiving fourth position lunge), and the bigger jumping phrases, which dancers must frequently punctuate with a solid landing on one leg, are held for a beat or two longer than usual.
Indeed, the program’s curtain raiser, “Bournonville Divertissements,” a compilation of excerpts from Abdallah, Napoli, and Flower Festival in Genzano, was filled with this kind of technical devilry, which in the May 16 matinee performance (comprised, incidentally, almost entirely from members of the corps de ballet, who were well up to the task) was handled with vivacious clarity.
In 1991, when Martins staged his fairly faithful-to-the-original production of The Sleeping Beauty, the challenge posed to the City Ballet dancers, accustomed as they were to performing a primarily abstract repertoire, was if they were up to telling a story convincingly. Then, as now, the answer was yes, although the brevity of this production of La Sylphide doesn’t provide much time for character-building; in particular, Andrew Veyette’s James remained in sketch form. Yes, we should understand that the appearance of the Sylph tips his life topsy-turvy, but we should still see him struggle more between his affection for Effie, his fiancée, and his yearning for the Sylph.
In fact, Veyette, though likable and elegant, appeared to be more uncomfortable dealing with the choreography than with dramatizing his character’s dilemma. At first I wondered if his Act I jacket was too tight; then, when he shed the jacket in Act II’s forest scene—and still looked constricted—it seemed more likely that he has yet to master those truth-telling bras bas. Conversely, Joseph Gordon, as Gurn, James’ nudgy “friend,” seemed at ease with the style, sailing breezily through his passages. Megan LeCrone, in the somewhat thankless role of Effie (she is almost immediately thrown over for the Sylph—a creature who may not even exist!—and has comparatively little dancing), was sweet without being syrupy. The mime was mostly both clear and unaffected. Though the Bournonville Madge (the witch who tricks James into killing the Sylph) is, for my taste, too often mined for goofy, rather than ghoulish, humor, Marika Anderson’s Act I fortune-telling scene was admirably succinct: you are pregnant, she tells one startled young woman; yes, she tells Effie, you will be successful in love, but not with that one—James—but with this one—Gurn. We cannot doubt Anderson, who is brutally certain.
And oh, how could we misunderstand the joy of Ashley Bouder’s Sylph? Physically, she conjured up all that Taglioni’s original vision demanded: an effervescence that makes it appear that the ballerina is floating, a quality that makes audiences believe in the story’s supernaturalism. Bouder’s pointework here was both grounded and airborne, as she plucked onto her toes with a hovering precision. Bournonville’s contribution to the Sylph’s illusory presence, meanwhile, was in the allégro, and it’s here that Bouder was at her most gravity-defying. Her jumps were huge, buoyant: though it may sound contradictory, the very muscularity, the palatable earthiness of her jumps was what made them so otherworldly, so creaturely. Emotionally, Bouder exuded an unclouded innocence. Hers wasn’t a frail Sylph that a strong wind could blow away, but an uncannily calm one.
As in the “Bournonville Divertissements,” the liveliness of the Act I guests and friends created a bustling, Scottish reel-filled atmosphere punctuated by adorably energetic children from the School of American Ballet. The ensemble of second act sylphs, though, in designer Susan Tammany’s lovely part Chagall/part Gauguin forest, were correct enough but perhaps a bit too clipped. They are the happy cousins to Giselle’s somber wilis (ghosts of women betrayed by their lovers) and as such there should have been more breath, more sensuality, in their movements.
A week later and across Lincoln Center Plaza, in Kevin McKenzie’s handsome production of Giselle (staged after Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot, and Marius Petipa), the May 23 matinee pairing of Isabella Boylston and Alexandre Hammoudi in the lead roles of Giselle and Albrecht/Loys was captivating — their performances were honest, often thrilling if occasionally nerve-wracking as well. In order for this tragedy to move us deeply, we must believe that Giselle is a complete innocent—and Boylston achieves this. In the opening, as she ran about the stage, wondering where Loys (Albrecht in disguise) might be, she looked like a little girl who cannot help but go into a giddy, skip-like hop. Those little skitters were like giggles, reminding us that that’s what young love feels like.
Albrecht is another matter. He can be played as a spoiled nobleman who thoughtlessly pursues Giselle or as an unhappy nobleman who falls in love with a peasant girl who gives him a glimpse of what happiness could look like. (In other words, Albrecht as another suffering Romantic era poet-type). Hammoudi gives us Albrecht the good guy; he conveyed a princely arrogance when his squire didn’t immediately follow his commands, but once alone he turned toward Giselle’s cottage with a quiet ardor that seemed to begin in his sternum, drawing him forward.
But amidst the passion were some performance jitters: Boylston stumbled a bit in her Act I solo’s hops en pointe, and seemed strangely unnerved when being crowned during the wine festival. In one set of overhead lifts in Act II a slight bobble the first time around turned into an aborted mission on the repeat. Throughout Boylston’s and Hammoudi’s duets there was some vagueness in their phrasing, particularly toward the end of a section. As a result, the audience was frequently uncertain in their applause. This blurred musicality was also at issue in many of Hammoudi’s solo moments. In terms of the big picture these are small matters, but they kept this performance more earthbound than it deserved to be. It underscores the fine line a performer must negotiate between abandoning themselves to the moment and the ability to stay in control. To be spontaneous and restrained: it’s a tall order. (And, if you go back and re-read my quibbles about the Sylphide corps, one that goes both ways.)
And yet, as I said, there was much that was thrilling about this performance, too; indeed, Boylston had many fine, sometimes even trememdous, moments. Her ballottes and pas de chats in the first act were full, diamond-cut, with high and clear knees; in the second act, standing behind Albrecht, that arabesque didn’t inch up, as if by magic, but millimetered up. And, true professionals, she and Hammoudi recovered rather well after each hiccup. Boylston even seemed to use her nerves in Giselle’s mad scene—subdued at the beginning, she unraveled, finally becoming unhinged: her collapse, the moment Hammoudi caught her, was chillingly real. In that moment the production didn’t feel like an illusion: suddenly emptied of he life force, Boylston slipped, ragdoll-like, right out of Hammoudi’s grasp and onto the floor. Later, in Act II, when Giselle is summoned from her grave by Myrta, queen of the wilis, it seems as if life was pumped back into the character as Boylston flung herself, wildly, into those strange chug-spins.
Set designer Gianni Quaranta’s Act II forest is suitably spiky and spooky, the various components evocatively layered and textured so that the wilis can be seen running in the distance or seeming to vanish in and out of large translucent legs, disguised as trees. (However, these compelling visuals come at the expense of expanse. The wili corps seemed frequently crammed on to the sides of the stage, while individual dancers had to work on a too-sharp angle, sometimes skewing their lines.) Devon Teuscher’s Myrta, is, like those NYCB sylphs, solid but lacking a certain something — there should be some fire behind that ice.
To her credit, Teuscher did come up with a surprisingly striking moment of break in her cool. When confronted with Giselle’s continued protection of Albrecht, whom Myrta wants to destroy, Teuscher turned away, her chest caved and shoulders slumped. This sign of weakness was touching given its suggestion of vulnerability (when have we ever felt anything resembling compassion for Myrta?). The gesture reminded us that Myrta was once a living being and, like Giselle, had been hurt deeply. It was late in the performance, but this tiny detail was revelatory of something larger. After all, it is these kind of imaginative refreshments that keep these old ballets—so steeped in the Euro-, male,- aristo-centric milieus that they were first created and performed in—relevant today. The performers must be so deeply invested in what they are doing that we are caught up in the narrative as its cobwebs are brushed away. As long as we continue to believe in true love — and still feel the heartstab of its loss — these stories are timeless, and the artists who tell them so eloquently, indispensable.
Since 1989, Janine Parker has been writing about dance for The Boston Phoenix and The Boston Globe. A former dancer, locally she performed with Ballet Theatre of Boston, North Atlantic Ballet, Nicola Hawkins Dance Company and Prometheus Dance. Ms. Parker has been teaching for more than 25 years, and has a long history with Boston Ballet School. She is on the Dance Department faculty of Williams College in Western Massachusetts, where she has lived since 2003.