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Alexandra

The New "La Sylphide"

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Did anyone go?

Here's a review by Eva Kistrup for www.danceviewtimes.com

Killing Your Darlings

Nikolaj Hübbe had made his second production of”La Sylphide” the antidote of his first traditional setting. Changing important details in the story comes over less intrusive than expected, while radical changes in the second act décor become the straw that broke the camel’s back.

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Nikolaj Hübbe’s long anticipated new staging of Bournonville’s La Sylphide had it’s opening night yesterday. There has been a lot of talk and guesswork about this production (also on this site), as Hübbe has laid down a smokescreen, cleverly letting a few things leak out and being very secretive about oher things, partly, I think, to stir up interest and curiosity (read: to sell tickets), partly because the work and the ideas were still in progress.

Right from the beginning he has been very clear about, that this version of La Sylphide would be a very different one compared to any of the previous versions.

Well, it was indeed very different, especially if you look at the visual side of the production. The steps are the same, and so are most of the designs of groupings and formations, and of how the dancers enter the stage or move around it. The big changes lie in the scenery and to some extent in the costumes, and in the overall atmosphere:

Gone is all the happiness and gaiety of the wedding preparations of act 1: When the curtain raises a big and sparely lit, gloomy room with charcoal grey walls is revealed. My first association was a that of a prison with bare concrete walls. There are a few pieces of furniture (a pair of uncomfortable chairs, stools more like) and no windows except a high, narrow one in the background which opens to a non-definable white room, letting in a cold, greyish white light. Whether it is a door or a window is not to say, but as far as I remember, only the Sylph and James go through it, which makes sense in the end, as the room behind this door proves to be the room of act 2: the world of the sylphs. There has been much talk about the forest being replaced by “an other room”. The Danish set designer Bente Lykke Møller, who, according to Hübbe, has been very influential and co-creative in the staging, has been very clear about her hating forests on stage and about her being unable to create one. This “other room” she has created is a wide but claustrophobic room consisting of two high, moveable white walls at both sides, a white backcloth and a white floor. Again, the light is cold, like neon light.

Into the grey world of act 1 enter a lot of people, likewise clad in different shades of grey. The men still wear kilts but the tartans are gone: it is grey in grey. The women wear black or grey dresses buttoned up to the neck and small grey bonnets covering their hair.

Hübbe has created a world of austerity and asceticisme, a society of people banning the joys of life, like in the strictly religious societies of fishermen at the beginning of the 20th century, living at the western cost of Denmark, where nature plays a rough part in people’s life. This is a slight update of time and place which doesn’t do any harm to the story.What does harm to the story is the joy being absent: all the dances of act 1 are performed without a smile, as if they were an ordeal one has to go through at an event like a wedding, dance probably being banned the rest of the year. The only people looking happy are Effy, her friend Nancy and, at least sometimes, James. Gone, too, are most of the children who normally add to the festivity midways through the party (and mostly to the audible delight of the audience – if you can’t get through to the audience, just send in the children, and you are sure to get all the ahs! and ohs!): except the compulsory one at the fortune telling scene, there are only 6 children present in the reel. To Bournonville, dance was reserved the expression of joy: in his ballets you never see people dance to express unhappiness. They mime when they express unhappiness. An example is the Sylph’s second appearance in James’ room: When she conveys her sorrows to him, her unhappiness at his soon-to-be-wedding, she performs one of the most gripping mime scenes Bounonville has ever created, but as soon as she changes her tactics and starts tempting him instead by telling him how wonderful life in the forest is, at that very moment she starts dancing. It is really strange to see the reel performed like this: I can’t combine the gaiety and the happy energy of the music/the steps with what I see. Why are these people dancing if they think it is wrong? It is like watching the steps just being executed. (Hübbe did this once before, in “A Folk Tale”: the peasants in the first scene dance on command and therefore perform their steps mechanically and without any kind of facial expression.)

Into this world of life- and selfdenial enter two figures, both representing “an other world”: The Sylph and Madge. Maybe they are from the same world, or maybe even the first is just conjured up by the latter to stir up James. An argument for the latter interpretation could be that the dead Sylph is carried away by Madge’s 4 male helpers at the very end of the ballet. The Sylph is looking like she has always done, wings an everything. Madge however is a man, and not a man looking like a woman, no, he is a man-man, and a very well dressed one, a dandy more like. He and James apparently know each other, and here comes the gender problematic or gender switch into the picture, which has been heavily hinted at in the advance publicity. Is this a ballet about gender or sexual identity? Does James have some secret or unconscious longings towards persons of his own sex? And is the Sylph just a substitute or a way of escaping the world he is caught in without realizing fully what he is actually longing for? That, anyway, is the explanation Hübbe gives us in the programme note. What you see on stage, though, is more open, and James’ longing for the Sylph comes forward as a very physical one. At the end Madge kisses life out of James, and that lays at least the nature of Madge’s relation to James open to us. This death-kiss we did seesome years ago in Sorella Englund’s interpretation of Madge, by which Hübbe is very influenced and openly so: Madge is in love with James, and when she can’t get him, she destroys him, to her own despair. In that way Hübbe’s interpretation is a mere copy just with opposite gender.

I had feared a male Sylph and was therefore relieved that this was the only change. Only it doesn’t really work: A man dressed in frock- and waistcoat doesn’t tell fortunes – and girls in the kind of society depicted here would never be allowed to let anyone read their palm. And the scene at the beginning of the 2nd act where Madge, still in frock and waistcoat, produces the magic scarf doesn’t work either, no matter how much green light is shed on the scene, it even comes over as a bit comical, so too did the four helpers in footlong black skirts and bare from the waist upwards.

As mentioned before the 2nd act takes place in a completely white room. The sylphs who inhabit this room, as does also Madge, are looking and behaving like sylphs have always done. They are all alike, or I at least couldn’t tell the difference between the Sylph and her sisters, but it wasn’t any problem as you were never in any doubt whether it was her or not. Their dresses are pretty, but look insignificant on the white background and odd in their romantic attire in this clinical room. Even the floor is white which made me miss the moment when she looses her wings: they were invisible in all the white. It also looks odd when the Sylph is busy catching birds and finding water for James in these strange surroundings.

This white room with its clinical light is apparently a room of death. James is already dead when he enters it, or he has this pre-death experience, where people tell they have seen a white light. The question is then, what does Gurn, Effy, James’ mother and other from the search party do in this room? Gurn meets Madge, and maybe only he sees him, but still: Gurn isn’t dead, he is very much alive and very much in love with Effy in an absolutely non-neurotic and earthly manner. Later when Effy marrys Gurn, with the grudging accept of James’ mother, we see the only really moving gesture in this frosty version of La Sylphide: James is leaning his head on the shoulder of his mother, mourning his loss and in deep sorrow. His mother of course can neither see nor feel him as he is dead. That hit me deeply.

The question is, if this version sheds new light upon “La Sylphide”? It does shed a different light on the story, but also a more narrow one. By making James’ milieu such a narrow and lifedenying one, it makes it very obvious why he wants to run away. Everybody would, no matter whether it was sexuality or something else that singled them out from the majority. Effy is as much a victim as he is. She is being pictured as a loving and a bit repressed girl, who is completely under the thumb of James’ mother, who is described as a domestic tyrant who reveals no feelings if she can help it. But by making it so obvious that this is a society that robs you of any kind of joy or freedom, it somehow narrows in the scope of interpretations, because it is so understandable, that James want to escape it: It moves the perspective away from James and over to the surroundings. The “diagnosis” lies in a society to which you feel no affinty and you can therefore free yourself of any guilt. It is not one of us that makes life unbearable for James, it is those religious fanatics.

Apart from that, I can’t understand why it has to be so drab and ugly to look at! To my ears it goes completely against the music, that evokes so much romanticism in the 2nd act and so much gaiety in the 1st act. And the music is still an important part of a ballet, especially in this, where the music is tailormade on the libretto.

I will come back later with a review of the dancers in La sylphide and of the fabulous performance of Lander's Etudes which followed La Sylphide. Now its bedtime!

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Thank you very much for such a long report, Anne - sounds as if I have a couple of really cheerful evenings to look forward to... But I'm seeing different casts and it will be interesting to see how it works without Hubbe himself in it.

What was the audience reaction like?

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Did anyone go?

Here's a review by Eva Kistrup for www.danceviewtimes.com

Killing Your Darlings

Nikolaj Hübbe had made his second production of”La Sylphide” the antidote of his first traditional setting. Changing important details in the story comes over less intrusive than expected, while radical changes in the second act décor become the straw that broke the camel’s

On reading the review of Eva Kistrup on the Nikolaj Hübbe revision of the Royal Danish Ballet company's "La Sylphide,"

I have no comment other than "NOT IN FRONT OF ME."

My memories of "La Sylphide" from the 1960's onward suffice.

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Thank you so much, Anne! It's wonderful to have such a detailed view of a new production. It doesn't sound as though it has much to do with the Romantic era -- love of nature and all that. I look forward to reading you too, Jane, and to hearing reports of subsequent casts.

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Adding thanks to Anne for the detailed description. I agree with you, and with Alexandra -- it sounds like one of the fundamental aspects of Romanticism (the transformational power of nature) gets short shrift here. But the bright, white room sounds like a fascinating attempt at creating a different view of the afterlife -- perhaps James is indeed dead, and we see what he sees (the white room). Spirits might roam among us, only in a dimension we cannot see. And the tableau, of James with his head on his mother's shoulder, does sound very affecting.

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Thanks Anne for your report. It would be terrible for ballet if the traditional RDP version were lost

However I do agree with Sandik that the white room set looks very intriguing. Big clean stage settings - like those of Symphonic Variations or McGregor/Pawson's Chroma - are often thrilling to see after all the fuss of 19th stage sets ( esp in opera). More plastic, easier for the director to shift focus - as in film.

Liked your description of James's head on his mother's shoulder in the white room scene.

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First reaction: neither shock horror nor excited enthusiasm - puzzlement and impatience, rather - what I saw onstage just doesn't match what Hübbe has said he is trying to do. But it was already different from opening night, apparently - e.g. the bit Anne described, where James rests his head on his mother's shoulder, simply didn't happen.

More tomorrow, when I've seen another cast and had time to read the programme note and get back to a proper keyboard.

(Though meanwhile I have to say that seeing Alban Lendorf''s dancing in the second act against a plain white background is quite something!)

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Allow me to add my thanks to everyone else's, Anne!

I love Bournonville's La Sylphide for the simple reason that it is a perfect distillation of a certain flavor of early 19th century Romanticism - right down to the fantasy Scotland setting so beloved of that era.

So I'm going to go all Ms. Crankypants Curmudgeonly and declare that I see absolutely no reason to make any material changes to the setting, the story, the steps, or the decor. Really. And I say this as someone who heartily enjoyed a performance of Hamlet wherein the lead role was taken simultaneously by three different actors, one of whom was a women and another African-American.

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Allow me to add my thanks to everyone else's, Anne!

I love Bournonville's La Sylphide for the simple reason that it is a perfect distillation of a certain flavor of early 19th century Romanticism - right down to the fantasy Scotland setting so beloved of that era.

So I'm going to go all Ms. Crankypants Curmudgeonly and declare that I see absolutely no reason to make any material changes to the setting, the story, the steps, or the decor. [....]

This was kind of my reaction too...though I would be happy to see Lendorf dance anything. (Haven't seen him yet...)

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Thank you, Jane -- I look forward to hearing what you thought of the other cast, and whether the production changes.

Kathleen, I agree completely. What would we say if someone changed Concerto Barocco's costumes to, oh, bright pink polka dot 1950s dresses and give the man two virtuoso solos because they couldn't dance back then (as everyone knows). Much less turn it into a story.

'La Sylphide" is the surviving poster child of Romantic ballet -- the love of nature, the contrast between the freedom of the forest and the closed indoors, the local color of far away Scotland, the hero longing for something he doesn't have, the supernatural. I think the changes Hubbe is making to Bournonville bother me the most because the balletmaster in Copenhagen (at least the Danish ones) think of their role as preserving their heritage, in all senses of the word. They use their people (rather than trying to bring in perfect bodies) and they feel it's important to preserve the ballets AND MAKE THEM LIVE. I've wondered if that latter demand is one that can't currently be met.

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A question for those who've seen the production. How do they handle the way Bournonville used costume changes (the plaid) to tell the story? I've always thought it was the perfect answers to Balanchine's "There are no mothers-in-law in ballet." There are here. Effy wears one plaid at the beginning, changes into James's clan's plaid for the wedding, and then appears wearing Gurn's clan's plaid in the little scene that tells James that yes, she's married. How do they handle that in this production?

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Somewhat difficult as there is no colour in any of the costumes, but I took notice this evening - she starts in very light grey like all her friends, then changes into very dark grey to match James's kilt, and then in her wedding procession she's in mid-grey like Gurn's kilt

Can also say that the ending has been different in all 3 performances so far.

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Kathleen, I agree completely. What would we say if someone changed Concerto Barocco's costumes to, oh, bright pink polka dot 1950s dresses and give the man two virtuoso solos because they couldn't dance back then (as everyone knows). Much less turn it into a story.

Shhhhhhhhhhhhh

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This was kind of my reaction too...though I would be happy to see Lendorf dance anything. (Haven't seen him yet...)

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What would we say if someone changed Concerto Barocco's costumes to, oh, bright pink polka dot 1950s dresses and give the man two virtuoso solos because they couldn't dance back then (as everyone knows). Much less turn it into a story.

You mean rather than the original costumes for the work?

(ducks)

I don't think we disagree on the fundamentals here, really -- I'm not arguing to replace the original production with this new version. I'm just interested in seeing where someone might go with this material.

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The original costumes for "Concerto Barocco" weren't polka dot, of course. And there are some ballets that are changed after their premieres (including "La sylphide," by Bournonville) but there's a point when the designs become The Designs.

Re the new Bournonville productions, several of my Danish friends have put it this way -- "Of course we want something new, but then he should do something new!!!"

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This was kind of my reaction too...though I would be happy to see Lendorf dance anything. (Haven't seen him yet...)

Thank you. I'm looking forward to the day I can seem him live...

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I went on premiere night.

I can't talk about this production in terms of technicality, tradition or ballet history - and it seems so far I'm in minority, but the La Sylphide I saw last Saturday must definitely count as my ultimate Sylphide and as one of the most moving ballet performances I've seen. I'm already looking forward to revisiting the grey walls of act 1 and the white room of act 2 again come February next year. Everything just worked for me. I think I understood Hübbe's vision, with said vision being executed in a way that I really felt, too. Suddenly James, as a character, made sense to me. Birkkjær completely sold me on him (not to mention, his jumps were fantastic) and this is after I wasn't smitten with him as Armand in Lady of the Camellias. Kizzy Matiakis was superb as Effy. I've read really harsh reviews of her portrayal, but she fit the milieu and her Effy was both sympathetic and grounded. I'm not sure she'd necessarily have fit into any other version of the ballet, but she fit like a hand in a glove into this one and she and Birkkjær had good interaction. Well, as good of an interaction as you can get when your fiance is a repressed gay man. Hübbe as Madge... It seemed like a very personal part for him to take on. Personally, I'd love to see Haynes' or Bernholdt's interpretations, but Hübbe was intense and especially in the second act, he left me breathless. Maybe the white room as a background just suited him better, instead of the grey in grey (which I otherwise had no problem with at all). Finally, Grinder as the Sylph... Let it be said, I'm biased. I chose to attend premiere night mainly to see her reprise her role as the Sylph. I saw her dance it twice back in 2011 and already back then, Grinder was the epitome of a conceptual Sylph which I liked, but a lot of critics didn't. This time, the Sylph was a concept and in turn, Grinder looked and danced like air incarnate. She has really grown since I saw her in 2011. It was a joy to watch. The whole thing just came together beautifully.

Like I said, I'm probably in the minority, but I loved this take on La Sylphide and although there are things that could be improved upon, I hope it isn't short-lived. It's great now, it has so much potential. With a little work and allowed the time to mature, it could be perfect.

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Thank you for your report, Syrene!

If there were world enough and time I'd actually like to see Hübbe's new production. My response to the idea of it has been negative, but I'm always uncomfortable writing something off sight unseen.

I saw Grinder's Sylph back in 2011 too, and I thought her death scene was stunning; her transition from a magical spirit to a broken creature was beautifully done.

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I went on premiere night.

I can't talk about this production in terms of technicality, tradition or ballet history - and it seems so far I'm in minority, but the La Sylphide I saw last Saturday must definitely count as my ultimate Sylphide and as one of the most moving ballet performances I've seen.

...

Like I said, I'm probably in the minority, but I loved this take on La Sylphide and although there are things that could be improved upon, I hope it isn't short-lived. It's great now, it has so much potential. With a little work and allowed the time to mature, it could be perfect.

Thanks so much for sharing your response -- I'd love to see this production (I'm always curious when I read differences of opinion) if it's as affecting as you say, I would hope that this and the traditional heritage production could live in the same repertory.

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Thank you, Anne, Jane, and Syrene! It was great reading all of your reactions. I would love to see this sometime.

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The third cast had a fine debut from Gregory Dean as James - his acting was more feverish and impassioned than Lendorf's slower burn and I thought Dean's Act 2 was just as satisfying as Lendorf's. Madge was Sebastian Haynes, who may just be 20 rather than still a teenager, but has the presence and authority you'd only expect from a much more experienced dancer - for instance the scene where he prepared the poisoned scarf was quite mesmerising. Dean seemed slightly closer to Hubbe's new plot than Lendorf did - I thought his first reaction on seeing Madge by the fire definitely showed that he recognised him from earlier in his life - and he also did the ending differently: he howled with anguish (silently, of course) as the Sylph's body was carried away and ran to Madge for the kiss which kills him - but it looked to me quite definitely that he kissed Madge rather than the other way round, as I believe Hubbe and Birkkjaer played it. So a new scenario to figure out... In the second cast, Maria Bernholdt as Madge threw herself on to James's dead body as the curtain came down: Haynes just stepped over him , completely impasssive. So evidently Hubbe has let the other casts find there own way through instead of insisting they follow his own path.

Alexandra Lo Sardo was Lendorf's Sylph - light and beguiling but with some rather unexpectedly four-square phrasing where I'd expected her to dance around the music rather more. The third cast Sylph was Amy Watson, and I'm afraid I found her badly miscast - her own undoubted talents and those required for this role aren't at all a good match.

Eva Kistrup has much more detail in her review of these two casts:

http://danceviewtimes.typepad.com/eva_kistrup/2014/10/making-stars.html

There's still a lot more to be said about why Hubbe chose this approach - he says in the programme book it was entirely a personal decision, to cure his own obsession with James by killing him - and about the decor. Plenty of people seem to like both, by the way.

We saw the same cast in Etudes at both of these performances as the first cast needs both Lendorf and Dean. Holly Jean Dorger was the Ballerina and I liked her a lot, especially in the Sylphide section - there's something about the quality of her dancing that really pleases me. (Eva doesn't agree!)

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Thanks to everyone who saw the performance for taking the time to do write such detailed reports -- of cast changes as well as the opening.

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