Bournonville’s Sylph = Baltic amber

13 Nov

So I’ve been missing in action this week, and this may or may not be my only entry (but it’s a good one!).  After all, when your two best friends are in town, you gotta do what you gotta do (which for us, means eating a lot of tasty treats and taking pictures of ourselves in this wooden cutout of prairie dogs at the Columbus zoo…among other perfectly normal things).  And what I gotta do is play!  Ellen DeGeneres was on Oprah recently, and one thing she said that I absolutely loved and whole heartedly agree with was that “everybody stops playing when they get older.”  It’s so applicable to dance as well…I think that one should be able to go into a studio, at any age, laugh, have a good time and make the studio your happy place.  I know I do, and it’s pretty easy if you’ve had teachers like a Karen Eliot (if that’s her real name), who always manages to make me laugh.  I also think nurturing the inner child is what delights ballet audiences and brings us back again and again.  Some stick in the mud pragmatic adult would convince themselves to spend the money on other things or that ballet is for dreamers, while we dance audiences can barely wait until the next show and never cease to be amused by the ethereal.  So brava dance fans…you’re doing wonderful things for your inner child.

Anywhodle, I just finished watching The Royal Danish Ballet’s production of La Sylphide, choreographed by August Bournonville.  All I can say is, I immediately added this one to my amazon.com wish list.  It’s a gem…Baltic amber if you will recall (because amber perfectly preserves a plant or creature inside of it, blah blah blah while other ballets are fossils that only offer traces of what once existed, blah blah blah, I’m a paleontology geek, and that’s the metaphor that works for me.  I nurture my inner child via dance and dinosaur bones).  I will say that I might like the score for the original La Sylphide better, but Herman Løvenskiold’s quite wonderful as well.  Maybe you get what you paid for, and it’s not that I disliked Løvenskiold’s score, just musically I’m pretty sure I liked the other one better.  Bournonville’s Sylphide wins everything else though, and the score may have even worked against Lacotte.  For one thing, Bournonville’s Sylphide is just over an hour while Lacotte had roughly an additional half an hour.  Now having watched Bournonville’s, and how he decided to interpret the libretto, I almost feel like Lacotte didn’t know what to do with the extra thirty minutes.  I’ll chalk it up to poor time management skills because he crammed Gurn and Effie’s “engagement” into the first act as an afterthought, while Bournonville placed a significant exchange with Madge in the second act, which to me gave Effie and Gurn’s relationship (as well as the character of Gurn himself) much more significance.  Even the procession is brought downstage, right in front of James, rather than being distant in the background, which for lack of a better term was totally rubbing it in his face.  It makes his devastation over having lost both the Sylph and Effie more believable.

Lacotte’s costuming was an eye sore too.  The bright red and sky blue plaids were bizarre, and The Royal Danish Ballet’s plaids were predominantly the typical reds, greens and yellows, with the shades being earthier and not so crayon-ish.  Reminds me of my days as the assistant stage manager for my high school’s production of Brigadoon, sifting through our massive costumes closet with the costumes crew, looking for plaids and kilts…it was a lot of dust and a lot of sneezing.  But I digress (although on the topic of costuming, I also liked Effie’s pigtails, because I am a proponent of pigtails for no logical reason, but then later on when it was revealed to be this odd bun plus pigtails hybrid contraption I was unnerved).  It’s weird to look back at the Lacotte Sylphide now, because I thought it was perfectly lovely at the time, but now there’s just so much that doesn’t make sense…like the whole pas de trois with James, Effie and the Sylph.  Bournonville’s Sylph has more nerve and sort of flits in and out when the characters besides James have their backs turned, but Lacotte’s inclusion of the Sylph in that pas de trois makes things confusing, as if to say James was hallucinating because he had the most epic case of cold feet ever, which doesn’t fall in line with the libretto at all.

I liked the portrayal of Madge a lot more in Bournonville’s Sylphide…she wasn’t so crone-ish.  Sorella Englund was fantastic, and she made this hilarious face at James when she’s telling him to hide the “scarf of doom” from the Sylph that actually made me snort from laughing (that and the moment when Gurn falls on his bum when the chair is pulled out from beneath him…totally didn’t see that one coming.  Oh, early 19th century humor.)  Lis Jeppesen was a gorgeous Sylph, and she has this wonderfully open chest, or as friend Svetlana would say, a “beautiful bony sternum” (man, I need to figure out how to get one of those!).  One thing I really noticed, and I’m not entirely sure if it was part of the choreography itself or the Bournonville style was how creamy the port de bras of all the Sylphs were.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen such soft arm movements, and it really added to the spritely, floating quality of the Sylphs, and sharply contrasted the rigidity of Jeppesen’s arms at the end during her death scene.  It wasn’t some romanticized, lyrical death like a swan a la Fokine, but a butterfly’s final twitches before it dies.  I felt Jeppesen’s interpretation of the Sylph to be much more indicative of an otherworldly fairy, while Lacotte’s choreography had Dupont looking more like a shy, tentative child.  Nikolaj Hübbe was…flawless (and quite handsome) as James, and there was this wonderful moment in the second act, where he’s walking amongst the Sylphs, and he had this fascination like a child in the summertime, walking amongst fireflies.  Of course his dancing was superb, with such clean batterie and quick, articulate legs and feet.  I almost think Bournonville saw legs as being equal to arms; the same speed and control with which we can maneuver are arms should be possible with the legs.

I actually got a chance (thanks to Karena) to have a go at Bournonville petite allegros, and I have to say they were among the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in ballet.  If there’s ever an argument for muscle memory, Bournonville allegros would be it, because there is no way you can think your way through them; your body has to KNOW them.  Otherwise, you get lost and you’re screwed.  There were so many quick changes of facings, like a mini tour jeté in the opposite direction that you wouldn’t naturally think of, lots of little transition steps that required precision, and of course little tippity-dips and shooby-doos with beats and whatnot.  The sensation of doing Bournonville allegros can be likened to being thrown into a cotton candy machine…it’s sweet, light and fluffy, but you’re just kind of along for the ride.  You’re not in control of your own body (your mind is definitely not in control), but in some ways that almost feels more like…dancing.  Because your body is just doing it, and once it knows how, you’re free to dance with your face and add the icing.

So this DVD is a must, and although the full version isn’t on YouTube there are some really interesting videos like one of Ellen Price dancing the opening variation in 1903!  It really is incredible that the choreography is exactly the same, and delightful as ever.

Another video of note that I found particularly moving was Erik Bruhn and Carla Fracci.  Bruhn, I think I read somewhere is said to be one of the greatest James of all time, although there is no full length recording of him in the ballet, just the grand pas de deux.  They left me speechless.  Must. See. More. Erik Bruhn.

And lastly, just for fun, current Royal Ballet principal Johan Kobborg, as Madge.  Why?  Because he’s awesome, and cross-dressing in ballet is fantastic. 

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4 Responses to “Bournonville’s Sylph = Baltic amber”

  1. Karen Eliot November 14, 2009 at 4:08 pm #

    Hi Steven,

    Karena sent me all the La Sylphide clips. Wonderful!! Thanks so much. I have a copy of Erik Bruhn and Carla Fracci doing “Giselle” if you want to borrow it sometime–he was phenomenal. When Nureyev first emigrated to the west he said it was Bruhn he wanted to study with because he so admired his classicism and his style.

    Anyway, stop by my office sometime or let Karena know, and I can give her the DVD to give to you.

    By the way, Karen Eliot IS my real name….depending on what you mean by real name……..

    see you, Karen

    • youdancefunny November 17, 2009 at 4:11 am #

      Hi Karen!

      Thanks for reading and for clearing up the name controversey. One more thing off the “now I can rest in peace list.”

      There is definitely something magnetic about Bruhn that makes me want to see more, and Karena offered to lend me the same DVD as well, but if she is incapacitated in some way, I will be sure to come a-knockin.

      Hope your writing/research is coming along well!

  2. Betania December 26, 2011 at 10:48 am #

    I surely loved your review. I just had finished whatching myself this amazing danish production and felt compelled to find out more about this astonishing (and i`m very sure this is the proper word for me) dancer Lis Jeppesen is/was. I had seen this very same video a lot of years earlier and it always stood in my mind as a must-see-again.

    I submit you this link of a very clarifying interview with her. I had been suspecting some of the things she claims for a long time and you can`t imagine how relieved I felt when I read it: http://auguste.vestris.free.fr/Interviews/Jeppesen.html

    And this one I hope you find it nice: http://www.theballetbag.com/2010/02/10/la-sylphide/

    Finally, I want to emphasize how much I enjoyed and agreed with your review. La Sylphide belongs to Bournonville and Royal Danish Ballet! (and yes, Nikolaj Hübbe was a lovable James).

    • youdancefunny January 24, 2012 at 5:00 pm #

      Thanks for the link to the interview! This reminds me I actually need to buy the DVD for myself…I’ve been craving to watch it again for months now!

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