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Nikolaj Hubbe's "La Sylphide"

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Nikolaj Hubbe and Ib Andersen are interviewed in a Sunday piece about story ballets in the Arizona Republic.

Kenneth LaFave in the Arizona Republic on story telling in ballet and two very different presentations in Arizona this month:


"I have no use for productions of story ballets that do not recognize the importance of the story," says Nikolaj Hübbe, the New York City Ballet principal dancer who has staged Sylphide for Ballet Arizona.

"To see a story ballet only choreographically or musically - well, why on earth do a story ballet, then?"

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The casting for La Sylphide is up on Ballet Arizona website. It's a pop-up window from the "Cast" link on the page.

CAST (Principals)

Numbers and letters in ( ) indicate the date of performance. M for matinee. E for evening. Subject to change.

La Sylphide Natalia Magnicaballi (14, 15, 16E)

Paola Hartley (16M, 17)

James, her son Elye Olson (14, 15, 16E)

Astrit Zejnati (16M, 17)

Effy, her niece Lisbet Companioni (14, 15, 16E)

Kendra Mitchell (16M, 17)

Gurn, a young farmer Michael Cook (14, 15, 16E)

Vitaly Breusenko (16M, 17)

Madge, a fortune-teller Nancy Crowley

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Kenneth LaFave in the Arizona Republic on Ballet Arizona's La Sylphide, staged by Nikolaj Hubbe:


Ballet Arizona's gifts to the Valley have included a Swan Lake to brag about; a striking, full-length original ballet by artistic director Ib Andersen; and sporadic but authentic growth toward greater mastery of classical technique.

Its newest gift, and certainly one of the most immediately appealing, opened Thursday night at the Orpheum Theatre. La Sylphide, an 1832 ballet that set the style for all subsequent Romantic ballets, made its Arizona debut in a perfectly cast, magically danced production staged by Nikolaj Hubbe from the 1836 choreography by August Bournonville.

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While the Civic Center plaza is being renovated -- it's now a multi square block hole in the center of downtown Phoenix bordered on one side by Symphony Hall -- Ballet Arizona is performing in a jewel box theater, the Orpheum, about six blocks away, and it's a gem. The prosceneum is framed by half a dozen thin tubes decorated with geometric patterns and formed in a cross between an arch and a square. Above the tubes are disks with ancient dancing figures, with little turrets and gargoyles along the top, and all are covered in a mix of gold and copper. (The theater is at Copper Square.) On each side of the prosceneum is another, ornate series of square columns, followed by a mural of what I think is supposed to be the Arizona landscape -- unusually green and lush with a spray of red flowers -- and then the start of a Moroccan-like building, in which "windows" are air-ducts and spaces for the lighting. The ceiling is painted blue, and is only darkened completely after the ballets start. Since the recorded music was played over the (very fine) sound system, there were no visual cues from the pit, and it was disconcerting to hear music, when the house wasn't fully dark.

The program opened with Elevations, Ib Andersen's new work, excerpts from which will be performed at the Guggenheim Museum in November, the Company's first New York appearance. In the evening performance, this was much to the chagrin of the father behind me, who gave his young, very bored daughter a rousing description of how what we were about to see would be like The Nutcracker, only to have the curtain rise on three men standing upstage right, who began the ballet in silence. (Unfortunately, she was assuaged with a package of M&M's.)

The piece is set for ten dancers, in groups of solo to five. The five men wear white tights and tunics, the five women in short tunics. Three men begin in silence, with the feeling of a combination of ritual movement and exercise, which builds when the music by Handel begins. This is followed by a pas de cinq for the women, which opens with a lovely movement in which from tendu back, with one arm in high fifth and the other arm in front at shoulder level, the dancers bend slowly back, and then back even lower by bending their knees. The section morphs into as series of movements on the floor, as the women turn themselves into pretzels, very languidly. The affect is startling, more like Afternoon of a Faun, than Cirque du Soleil. Michael Cook, one of the first trio of men, returns, and begins the third part with a slow, exposed solo -- beautifully danced -- that had a tinge of the man's solo from Square Dance in feeling; he is later joined by the two men who were not in the opening. Following was a solo for one of the tall women (Kenna Draxton or Katrina Olson). I believe it was the same woman who was later joined by Joseph Cavanaugh in what started as a dance of contrasts for two -- Cavanaugh bounced across the stage with little leaps with both feet in 6th position and flat -- and later became a pas de deux. There were two pas de cinq and two pas de trois for a man or woman flanked by two/four of the opposite gender. I'm sure I'm missing one or two as well.

One section was done to the much-used music that Balanchine used for Adams' part in Figure in the Carpet and re-used for Farrell's regiment in Union Jack. The piece ended with the pas de trois for Michael Cook, Lisbet Companioni, and the splendid Kendra Mitchell. This was a surprise to the audience, because when the curtain went down on Companioni and Mitchell each planting a kiss on one of Cook's cheeks, there was a big "Huh?" in the audience-- the finale with all of the dancers felt missing.

When I looked at the cast list, I wondered how most of the dancers found the time to be in it and La Sylphide: Cook danced Gurn; Cavanaugh, Shtylla, and Toth were in the male corps; Companioni and Mitchell alternately danced Effy and her friend Nancy, as well as sylphs; Draxton was a 1st Sylph, and Olson danced James. When the piece first opened, I thought that it was going to be a quirky piece a la Twyla Tharp, and the juxaposition of Cavanaugh and the dancer in the pas de deux also stuck me as Tharpian. But while at first look it seemed a bit static -- most of the dance is in unison or canon -- what Elevations turned into was a beautiful training ballet, full of juxtapositions of weight and unlikely changes of direction, requiring precision, placement, and unforced control, just the meal to nourish La Sylphide.

La Sylphide followed. Kudos to Nikolaj Hubbe and the Company, for the high points of this production were the first Act ensemble and the clear, seamless, unaffected mime. Everyone from Principals to the three pairs of children in the group dance created a complete and unified world on stage, and that sense of balance was maintained by by two casts. This type of focus and commitment to a whole was a privilege to see.

Madge was played by Company dancer Nancy Crowley. From the orchestra, she seemed closer to over-the-top than from the Balcony, where her portrayal played very well. The kids around me loved her, and there were twice as many children on Saturday night as there were for the matinee, as well as a generally younger crowd. The witches scene that opened Act II was fabulous. Nikolai Moroz and Sergei Perkovskii were the friendly farmhands, and Kim Sonderegger was Effy's gracious mother, in both casts. If the children, particularly the boys, who danced in Act I are any indication of the younger kids in the School, the future is bright.

The dancing from the four main characters was uniformly excellent; the differences in approach and personality made the two performances different experiences, equally valid in the same frame.

The role of James in many ways is custom-tailored to Zejnati, in which he can show impeccable beats and placement. Temperamentally, his James was a bit more restless, but also a bit more cad-like: when he explains to Effy that he was just dreaming, he threw the charm around a bit more and seemed to have a bit more to hide -- has his eye roamed before? -- , whereas to Olson's James, he seemed a bit more convinced at that point that the dream didn't have lasting meaning. Olson's dancing was a bit more dynamic than Zejnati's, if not quite as clear; from the Balcony, his black slippers over gray socks blended into the floor, so I may have understimated him a bit.

There were two dramatic parts that the Production emphasized with Gurn: First, When Gurn finds James' hat in Act II, he has an "aha, got him!" gesture, and is ready to show the group evidence of James' "madness", but the reason he lies to Effy is that Madge tells him that that this is a bad strategy. Second, Gurn had to be pushed by Madge into proposing to Effy after James has betrayed her; he's clearly not comfortable in the role of wooer. Cook's Gurn was a bit more temperamental than Breusenko's, who seemed a bit more sentimental. Breusenko's approach was a nice contrast to Zejnati's more matter-of-fact public persona for James, while Cook was a feistier, less polished rival, in contrast to Olson's more Golden Boy portrayal of a man for whom things usually went very right and who wasn't sure where this longing was coming from.

The pairs of Effy and the Sylph were interesting matches. Kendra Mitchell played an Effy who was clearly like her mother, was ready to take her place in society at large with James, and within 20 years, was going to re-enact this scene with her own daughter. It made perfect sense that Zejnati's James would see his entire life in front of him in the group scene, and would run, frightened from the inevitability of it. When he tells Effy that "it was just a dream," it's not that Mitchell's Effy doesn't believe him, but that she thinks there's something suspect with this whole dreaming business. Paola Hartley was the Sylph in this cast. What set her apart from Effy was her curiosity and single-minded interest in him -- there were no family or societal obligations in this relationship. What he didn't see was the ways in which she was so much like his Effy, in her headstrong determination to have him. I didn't get the feeling that Zejnati's Sylph was the perfect female, but represented something else that he was striving for. Had she lived, I didn't see this as a long term match, but rather as a means of escape for him.

In the evening cast, both Lisbet Companioni's Effy and Natalia Magniacaballi's Sylph were more emotional, just as their Gurn and James were. Companioni played Effy much like Giselle, without the bad heart; she was a young girl and didn't resemble her mother much. She seemed more broken-hearted when she lost James, which made her happiness at marrying Gurn a bit more grateful. Magniacaballi's Sylph was more demanding, and a lot more high maintenance, which matched Companioni's intensity a bit more. Nonetheless, I believed that Olson's James had found The One, and that his death was actually a blessing, because he didn't have to live without her. I have to wonder if Madge was getting soft by not making James truly mad, wandering through the woods miserably.

Both Sylphs danced beautifully, but despite Magniacaballi's legato phrasing, as Barbara Newman said about Antoinette Sibley, Hartley "spoke to my condition." Hartley's movements were so clear and precise in a big way that there was resonance when she moved, and James could keep grasping at air, because she was still here and there and everywhere at once. And her feet are wonders -- in soussus, there is a perfect, single point on the floor. It gives me shivers to think about her dancing.

There is one dramatic point that's been brought up regarding the interpretation of whether Gurn sees Effy. In this production, everyone has left the room after the big group scene in Act I except James, and the lights go down. The Sylph re-appears through the window. I didn't notice this in the afternoon's performance, but in the evening's, Gurn looks in from the doors upstage, but leaves. He enters the room after the Sylph is dancing wrapped with Effy's long scarf in James' tartan. Having seen that James is up to something with someone who is not Effy, Gurn runs into the house to get her and her mother to expose James' duplicity. James hides the Sylph under a huge blanket, and when Gurn pulls it away, only the scarf remains.

It isn't clear to me whether Gurn actually sees the Sylph (made visible by wearing the scarf?) or if he sees the scarf moving around in the darkness and comes to his own conclusion, the equivalent of hearing whispers or seeing the shadows in the window.

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Somehow I missed this one -- thank you, HF, as always, for taking the time to write so thoroughly! I've been curious about Andersen's choreography, and yours is the clearest description I've read of it!

The Temptation of Gurn scene sounds like the Danish version; it's not so clear in ABT's production (or the old NBoC one). The controversial bits were in the first act. In the scarf-over-the-chair scene, Gurn traditionally goes through this, "I with my own eyes sees a winged creature" That was cut. And (a cut nobody minded, I think) when he went to sit down in the chair, it had been pulled a bit away from where he thought it would be, and he landed on the floor. The second change Hubbe made in the Danish production was at the end of the first act, when Gurn is sent running out to see if he can fiind James and comes back to report. Originally he, again, mimed "I with my own eyes saw a winged creature with James" but this was changed to a simple shrug of the shoulders. If it's been reworked, I'm very glad to learn of it!

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Originally he, again, mimed "I with my own eyes saw a winged creature with James" but this was changed to a simple shrug of the shoulders.  If it's been reworked, I'm very glad to learn of it!

I'm not sure if this is memory now, or the power of suggestion, but I think in this version it was a hybrid: first Gurn runs to the door (upstage center) and gestures that James (or James and the Sylph; that wasn't clear to me) were running away towards the woods. I think he's then sent out again by Effy and/or her mother -- there was lots of chaos onstage at the time -- and comes back and shrugs his shoulders, which I assumed meant, by then, James (and the Sylph) were gone.

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