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New production of Bournonville's La Sylphide


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Nikolaj Hübbe’s new production of Bournonville’s La Sylphide (actually his third with the Royal Danish Ballet) was premiered a month ago. It has been treated fairly well in the reviews, very much indebted, I believe, to the feeling of relief that we finally got rid of his lifeless black and white production from 2014. Three stagings of the same ballet in a relatively short span of only 17 years, is clearly a luxury only a residing ballet master can bestow on himself. And it is indeed a luxury in times where the repertory due to cutbacks only allows very few new productions each year.

Nevertheless, I was very excited about going to see a new Sylphide, which in Denmark's small ballet world is always a special occasion. The performance I saw was on the 21st November, with Caroline Baldwin, Jonathan Chmelensky and Esther Lee Wilkinson in the leading parts. Meanwhile the premiere performance has since yesterday been laid out for streaming on KGL Xtra: La Sylphide on KGL Xtra. The premiere cast was Ida Praetorius, Jón Axel Fransson and Kizzy Matiakis (by the way her last role before retiring 😥).

On the homepage and in the printed programme it says that the choreography is by Nikolaj Hübbe after August Bournonville. Modesty has never been part of Hübbe's leadership of the RDB, but this I wouldn't have thought of him: I may not be able to detect minor changes from the original, but the choreography was definitely Bournonville's. Hübbe might have made smaller changes or put his own mark on the execution of the steps, but that doesn't entitle him to call the choreography his own.

The staging

According to Nikolaj Hübbe and his set designer Mia Stensgaard, the overall intention of this production was to make a very romantic one, maybe as an antidote to the former one. The staging itself is indeed pretty, sometimes breathtakingly so, especially in the forest act. The lighting effect when the Sylphide summons her sylph-friends in the forest is like a Watteau painting coming to life. The first act is more subdued and held in decent blue and grey colours, the only loud colour being the bright blue of James’ family tartan.

The set design consists of multiple layers of printed draperies, which can be opaque or transparent, depending on the lighting, a technique also used to great effect in the 2nd act of Hübbe's staging of Giselle, where you, like in this Sylph’s forest, never really know, whether you are in a real space or in a soulscape. To indicate that the forest ist probably not for real and more likely represents a dream world, some of the big portières from the first act remain in the second act, the only difference being, that they are now rosy instead of blue. Golden and shimmering colours of rose dominate the forest scene, and until it dawns on James that his dream might be escaping him (as the Sylph lovingly but firmly denies him any bodily intimacy), the scene is bathed in a soft, golden light. As his frustration grows and eventually makes him an easy prey to the scheming Madge, the golden light is penetrated by cold, white arrays of light from above, like reality seeping in. When eventually both he and the Sylph are dead as a result of their uncompromising pursuit of an impossible dream, a flat and greyish white light also engulfs Madge: She also had a dream that didn’t come true, on the contrary: Her love-hate for James has, despite her clever scheming to get him for herself, finally destroyed him, and in the end she stands equally bereaved. An interesting and convincing way of portraying Madge that was originally introduced by Sorella Englund, who is co-director on this production.

I deliberately chose the word “pretty” instead of beautiful to describe the staging, as to indicate a certain lack of depth. It is pretty in the way also a fashion show or a life style magazine can be pretty whilst playfully transgressing the boundaries into kitsch. I’m not sure whether this is intended, but to mine eyes it does tend to kitsch occasionally. The staging is simply too much décor instead of being an integral part of the drama. The style takes over and suffocates the story to a certain amount. The effect is somehow too calculated. Normally I can’t help shedding a tear at the end of both act one and two, finding Effy’s and James’ tragedy equally unbearable, but this time I kept aloof all the time, just watching and analysing what I saw.

The dancers

According to interviews available on YouTube and KGL Xtra, the dancers have been allowed an individual take on their roles. It is a fine tradition at the RDB, and for the audience it makes every cast a new way of exploring into the ballets multifaceted universe.

Caroline Baldwin’s interpretation was a surprise to me. Her Sylphide was a calculating little creature who uses all tricks at hand to get what she wants. No big-eyed innocence à la Lis Jeppesen here! She is besotted with James, just as she is besotted with the fatal scarf, and she reaches greedily out for both. Baldwin has acquired a fleeting, featherlight way of dancing for the role, which gives you the impression that she barely makes any imprint on the ground, an impression underlined by her beautiful arms and hands fluttering equally weightless around her. What fascinated me most was her lovely way of slowing down midways during a pirouette or a turning arabesque, using it consciously as a way of bewitching James, casting flirtatious eyes in his direction by every turn. Her shock, however, when she is suddenly trapped in the veil, is genuine and without affectation. She, too, is having her own brutal encounter with the sometimes deadly forces of reality.

Jonathan Chmelensky was a sympathetic and non-sophisticated James, a nice guy, who treats his fiancée well, and who had no idea what hit him before it was too late. He stood no chance with two women like Baldwin’s Sylph and Esther Lee Wilkinson’s Madge. Chmelensky still has a beautiful, catlike powerfulness when he soars through the air, and his dancing is always well-proportiened and balanced. But he brings nothing new to the role.

Esther Lee Wilkinson was a very young Madge, an ageing beauty, oozing with desire for James. The costume, though, didn't do much for her and it looked more like an outworn hippie-costume from the seventies than a witch's outfit. When you see Kizzy Matiakis in the same dress it looks like it grows on her or even out of her, making her a nature's creature like the sylph.

Camilla Rueløkke Holst was an endearing Effy who never really warms up to Benjamin Buza's energetic Gurn. Buza is developing a lot these years, steadily gaining more stage presence, and he had an impressive solo in the first act, making fine – and dramatically intended – competition to James' later solo.

Eleonora Morris was 1st Sylph. She was somehow miscasted and made the choreography look unnatural  and artificial. The cast list in the printed programmes of the RDB arrogantly ignore dancers in smaller parts, like the two others solo sylphs, who must dance in complete anonymity. Only by scrutinizing the pictures of the corps dancers on the homepage you may be able to guess who you have seen. I think the dancers deserve better.

Edited by Anne
Language errors
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Thank you so much @Anne -- it's wonderful to read a first hand account but also in context!

As an FYI, in a Pacific Northwest Ballet digital subscription interview with Peter Boal, Twyla Tharp said that she was working on a piece remotely across four time zones, and Benjamin Buza is one of her quartet of dancers, with Charlie Hodges, a long-time Tharp dancer and collaborator, Herman Cornejo, and Maria Khoreva of the Mariinsky.  If I understood her correctly, it will be part of the American Masters series on PBS, our public television network.

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1 hour ago, Anne said:

On the homepage and in the printed programme it says that the choreography is by Nikolaj Hübbe after August Bournonville. Modesty has never been part of Hübbe's leadership of the RDB, but this I wouldn't have thought of him: I may not be able to detect minor changes from the original, but the choreography was definitely Bournonville's. Hübbe might have made smaller changes or put his own mark on the execution of the steps, but that doesn't entitle him to call the choreography his own.

I watched this twice on-line and really love it, and I so appreciate your detailed analysis. I am particularly curious about the choreography. I don't know the ballet well enough to know what is from the "original" Bournonville and what has been revised over the years. Certainly it seemed in the style of Bournonville, but it sounds like it is essentially Bournonville's choreography. Have historic reconstructions (a la Ratmansky) been attempted? Was a form of notation used at this company?

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The choreography is actually very well preserved, mainly due to the fact, that it has never left the repertoire since it was created. It has been performed in the RDB more than 800 times, and the roles were handed over from one dancer to the next. Moreover, until the 1960's a dancer almost literally "owned" a role until his or her retirement, which means that actually relatively few dancers have made their personal mark on the choreography since Bournonville died in 1875. But the style, when not the actual steps, has changed a lot since Bournonville's days: the dancers are taller and stronger (and slimmer) today, and the technique has developed hughely, especially the point shoe technique, which allows the dancers to do much more on pointe than Bournonville's dancers could. 

But there are a lot of expert people working with the conservation and preservation of the Bournonville style both at the theatre and outside. 

And yes, there exists a notation of the ballets, not all from Bournonville's own hand but from some of the dancers who still performed when he was ballet master. But I'll leave this last question to lthers who might know more. 


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Thank you, Anne - it's great to read a description from someone who's seen it in the theatre. From what you say I'd guess that the film lost a huge amount of the effect of the lighting and decor.  It's also good to read about a Sylph so very different from Ida Praetorius - not, at all, because I didn't like Praetorius -  but  showing that the production is strong enough to let its dancers choose their own way through to tragedy. From your description I'd really like to see Caroline Baldwin. If we ever can travel to Denmark again.


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Happy to have watched this late Saturday night.  I can't say much about the production from video, but it does seem very easy on the eyes (I might marry James JUST for the blue tartan). I found Praetorius a beautiful and touching sylphide but maybe not the 'sylphiest.'  Hard for me to put into words, but there is some quality of ballon or easy (and speedy) airiness that I love in Bournonville that I'm not sure I entirely saw in her or in her James...But I do always enjoy her dancing, and seeing the ballet and the company was a huge pleasure.

Edited by Drew
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On 11/27/2020 at 7:33 PM, Jane Simpson said:

From what you say I'd guess that the film lost a huge amount of the effect of the lighting and decor. 

It certainly looked more radiant and the colours were more shimmering  when you sat in the theatre. But after having seen the ballet on KGL Xtra in its full length, I'm afraid I am no longer so sure of the deeper meaning of the lighting. The shafts of white light are coming down in a kind of geometrical pattern, which I couldn't see from my place in the theatre, and they might as well just be part of the décor and not necessarily serve any dramatic purpose of the kind I suggested. The timing also speaks a bit against it: Why should it start just before the finale of the divertissements, where James is still completely ravished by the sylphs (though admittedly also already a bit annoyed and confused by the sheer quantity of sylphs - probably he had no idea that there would be more than one...).

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