Ballet Austin's first brush with Bournonville showed his style suiting the dancers
Reviewed by Jonelle Seitz, Fri., Feb. 18, 2011
Dell Hall at the Long Center
La Sylphide is a wonderful little ballet. It has a clear plot and a perfect balance of the ethereal, the human, and the evil. Full of sprightly, bouncy dancing, it is compact yet rich, and there is
plenty of humor. For about three-quarters of the ballet, things are pleasant, and the interventions of the old witch, Madge, seem inconsequential and silly. You're certain that there will be a happy ending: that young James will cease following the sylph – an intoxicating, mischievous forest sprite somewhere between a fairy and an insect – that Madge will leave young love alone, and that James and his fiancée, Effie, will have their sweet, provincial marriage. But before you know it, the once-effervescent sylph is making her death-shudders, Effie is doomed to a lifetime of loveless marriage with the next bloke in line, and Madge is standing over James as he collapses in death.
The ballet is the only tragic work by 19th century Danish choreographer August Bournonville, whose work is full of small jumps and fancy footwork with relatively simple upper-body movements. This simplicity is deceiving. It can be much harder to jump without moving one's arms – try it! – and it's exceedingly difficult to keep the arms and face looking calm and serene while the legs and feet are going gonzo down below. Ballon, or the quality of appearing to suspend oneself in midair at the top of a jump, is important, as is a soft, deep plié. Beautifully arched feet are a plus. When the women and men dance together, they often perform the same steps side by side, unlike the high lifts and supported turns in the pas de deux of Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake.
Stagings of La Sylphide are generally faithful to Bournonville's 1836 version, set to a score by Herman Severin Løvenskiold. (An Italian version of the ballet, with different music, preceded his but is no longer performed.) Since the ballet never left the repertoire of the Royal Danish Ballet, nothing much has been "lost." In Ballet Austin's staging, the dancers embody the gentle characters and strong-soft style, and the costumes and set, on loan from Boston Ballet, are perfect. It's a pity that the run for this production was only three performances.
I saw the Friday/Sunday cast, with Aara Krumpe as the sylph and Frank Shott as James. (Ashley Lynn Gilfix and Paul Michael Bloodgood performed the roles Saturday.) Krumpe's light jumps, attention to line and placement, and vivid dramatic qualities were the basis for her lush and humanistic sylph. Shott held up well under many of the demands of the unforgiving choreography, but at times his beats and landings were a bit smudged. James is a difficult role to act. Ideally, he leaves Effie because he is blinded by his enchantment with the sylph, not because he's an idiot who doesn't know what's what, and that infatuation didn't quite come across in Shott's portrayal.
In the role of Effie (in both casts), Anne Marie Melendez looked beautiful. Her lovely feet and supple plié are perfect for the style, and she brought a youthful innocence to the role. However, her Effie was also a bit feckless, a quality that not only minimizes the viewer's sympathy for her when James splits but also dilutes James' motivation to do so – if she's just a silly girl, was James enchanted by the sylph or just looking for any way out of the marriage? Unfortunately, too, Melendez's challenges with drama and projection continue to plague her performances. Even when Effie breaks into sobs after James leaves her at the wedding, Melendez didn't seem to be projecting far enough to reach my row (orchestra M), so I can imagine that the folks up in the balcony saw nothing much at all.
Not to say the cast did poorly – all things considered, they pulled it off rather well. I hope Ballet Austin revisits La Sylphide once Michelle Thompson, who might have made a good Effie, and Jaime Lynn Witts, whom I would have loved to see in both lead roles, are back from maternity leave. Perhaps, too, the company will stage other Bournonville works, as the style seems to suit the dancers or at least presents a happy challenge.