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La Sylphide

by on 21 January 2018

The Fragility of Love

La Sylphide

in double bill with Song of the Earth (McMillan, Mahler) or Le Jeune Homme et la Mort (Petit, JS Bach)

English National Ballet, The London Coliseum, until 20th January

 

La Sylphide

by August Bournonville, music by Severin Løvenskiold

Review by Suzanne Frost 

In this hugely contrasting and somewhat obscure double bill, the neoclassical minimalist Das Lied von der Erde is programmed to be followed by La Sylphide, a full on romantic ballet. While the programming is definitely debatable, La Sylphide will always have special place in my heart. It is undoubtedly one of the prettiest ballets I ever had the chance to perform in. As there are only six children needed for this show, we were allowed to be backstage already at half hour call. Our ballet mistress played Madge the witch and she would appear in the dark wings in full make up to wish us good luck while magical fairies were warming up on stage. I believe I can pinpoint this as the exact moment I caught the theatre bug. La Sylphide is somewhat singular in the romantic ballet canon as a supernatural gothic fairy tale with an unhappy ending, giving a poignant melancholic element to an otherwise hugely joyful show.

Set in Scotland, the handsome Highlander James is about to marry the wholesome Effie, when a Sylph, a wood fairy, takes a fancy to him, haunts his dreams and lures him to follow her into the forest literally seconds before his wedding. My first thought at curtains up was that way more ballets should play in Scotland! The swinging kilts bring so much colour, movement and atmosphere to the stage. And the Bournonville style fits so well with traditional Scottish dance. Actually it’s the Danish school of ballet and though ancient, it has aged wonderfully. La Sylphide was famously the first ballet ever to be performed in point shoes by Marie Taglioni in 1832. Just imagine how surreal and otherworldly the effect must have been to that first audience.

La Syphide (Laurent L)

The Bournonville style suits small dancers with fast muscle reflexes and usually ballet companies have many members that fit the type. There is a graceful humility about Bournonville, completely contrary to grand Russian ballet gestures. Instead of following any virtuosic technicality with five elaborate bows to disrupt the storyline, the Bournonville solos end the most fantastically fast footed batterie and entrechat six (I dare anyone to cross their legs six times in one jump) with a simple hand gesture, the balletic version of a shrug. A little wink as if saying: yes, you saw right, I just did that! Utterly charming! English National Ballet’s young soloist Isaac Hernández is a beautiful long limbed elegant dancer who celebrates his solos as bursts of energy. I was a bit disappointed that he didn’t finish his assemblées in the second act variation in a grand plié, as is custom in the Peter Schaufuss version. It adds such a nice folkloristic element and I bet it would have looked spectacular on Isaac.

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Casting the Sylph is notoriously difficult. It takes such a special kind of dancer: she should be small and cute, overwhelmingly charming but childishly mischievous and most of all, the right ballerina will give the impression to be almost constantly airborne. Jurgita Dronina is a perfect Syph. Not a sound from her point shoes. Light footed and happy, she has the fluffiest softest jumps whenever she is not suspended in endless balances as if time stood still. These contrasts show real quality and control in a dancer. When the Syph dies, killed by James’ attempt to capture and hold her, you get a real sense that something beautiful has been taken from nature, a fluttering, delicate creature killed by human possessiveness. I might have seen a more evil witch in other productions and the ascent of the dead Sylph to heaven could be done as a slightly less religious image but the glorious tartans, the wonderful music by Løvenskiold, the quality of the entire ensemble (I was mesmerized by the flawless footwork in the entrance of Effie’s girlfriends. What arches!) – Pure joy.

Suzanne Frost

January 2018

The Song of the Earth

by Kenneth MacMillan, music by Gustav Mahler

Review by Mark Aspen

As the double bill prelude to the shortcake-tin classical La Syphide, the dynamically angular contemporary ballet, The Song of the Earth is not an obvious choice.

Kenneth MacMillan claimed that the ballet that he would most like to be remembered for creating was The Song of the Earth. It is therefore a fitting choice for the English National Ballet to revive in tribute to MacMillan on the 25th anniversary of his death in October 1992. It faithfully follows both the score and the sentiment of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, which in itself was inspired by poems written by Chinese Tang dynasty poets.

So how are the two ballets mutually relevant? Both involve rivalry, both involve inevitability of emotions, both involve loss of that is impossible to keep. But the main themes revolve around the contrasts between fragility of love, the transience of earthly things and the eternity of true beauty.

Mahler’s song symphony (he was wary of numbering the symphony to avoid the curse of the Ninth) is a suite of six songs, each ethereally haunting in style, for alternating voices. Antipodean artists, contralto Rhonda Browne and tenor Samuel Sakker richly bring out the ephemeral mystery and brooding power of the song cycle. The ENB Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Gavin Sutherland with great insight into the atmosphere of the music, are on top form. Although Mahler foregrounds the woodwind, there are many opportunities for each member of the orchestra to shine in commenting on the themes.

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The three central characters are The Man, The Woman and The Messenger of Death. The Man is described by the faux-Asian pentatonic song Three, Von der Jugend (On Youth), and The Woman in the gentle legato song Four, Von der Schönheit (On Beauty), amongst the young girls plucking lotus flowers by the riverbank. (“junge Mädchen pflücken Lotosblumen an dem Uferrande”).   Then the tragedy of The Man’s passing, as he is taken by Der Ewige (the eternal one), The Messenger of Death … but they return for her, bringing the promise of renewal. “Die liebe Erde allüberall blüht auf im Lenz und grunt aufs neu … ewig… ewig…” (Everywhere the dear earth blossoms in spring and grows green anew … for ever and ever …).

MacMillan’s blend of classical ballet and contemporary dance gives The Song of the Earth its expressive style. In 1965, when MacMillan premiered the work with the Stuttgart Ballet this was an innovative approach. Indeed the Royal Ballet had rejected the whole concept. If the amalgam of dance styles is potentially uncomfortable for classical dancers, there was little evidence that it overextended the mixed corps de ballet, who are largely secure and confident in delivering the athleticism and articulation that McMillan’s abstract approach demands. Certainly many of the postures may seem inimical to classical ballet (eg leading heels) and some give a nod towards yoga, reflecting the oriental leaning of Mahler’s sources.

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Isaac Hernández (whose dancing was recognised by an award from the President in his native Mexico) danced the The Man with a strength and assurance, portraying one who remains unaware of his own mortality, and which makes his loss so poignant for The Woman. Erina Takahashi (who incidentally is married to James Streeter, La Syphide’s Bimse) brings a delicate lightness to the role of The Woman, touching in her loneliness at his loss. The masked figure of The Messenger of Death is given a demanding choreography, which was impressively delivered in this performance by Soloist, Ken Sarahashi.

Both Mahler and McMillan were going through difficult periods in their lives when they gave themselves to the creative processes that evolved as The Song of the Earth. McMillan saw the message of the work as “a sort of revelation achieved through death”. But in spite of the weighty premise of the work, the concluding feel, as music and choreography hang in the concluding cadenza, “… ewig… ewig…”, is one of elation, that death is not an end but a beginning.

Mark Aspen
January 2018

Photography by Tristram Kenton, Laurent Liotardo, Max Mukhamedov and Jason Bell
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