Giannandrea Poesio

Bewitching sylph

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It was with the 1832 ballet La Sylphide that Marie Taglioni acquired international repute and legendary status. Her angel-like, gravity-defying dancing earned her the affectionate appellation ‘Christian’ dancer, which sits somewhat uncomfortably with the mischievous nature of the eponymous role. Stark contradictions, however, were typical of the Romantic era: the idealised woman could be angel and demon, saint and whore, victim and executioner.

Thanks to the enlightened vision of the Royal Ballet’s artistic director, Monica Mason, this Romantic work has now re-entered the company’s repertoire 173 years since its creation. And what a splendid addition it is. Based on Auguste Bournonville’s Danish version, the most performed worldwide, this Sylphide is the labour of love of Danish-born Johann Kobborg, one of the company’s most prominent stars. Kobborg has remained essentially faithful to Bournonville’s text, with the exception of some edited passages and the restoration of a long-lost duet. Where he has moved discreetly away from tradition is in his theatrical reading of the ballet.

For Kobborg, the drama of the Scottish farmer James, who falls disastrously in love with the unattainable sylph, is the story of a young man who finds himself ensnared in a subtle game of jealousy and possessiveness woven by the three women who rule his life: the sylph, his earthly bride-to-be Effie and the mysterious Madge. By turning Madge into the sylph’s negative double, Kobborg has transformed the role from a stereotypical miming ‘witch’ into a real player in the drama. Hence his decision to have Madge performed mostly by female interpreters instead of being taken by the male ‘character’ dancer favoured by the Romantics, who could not accept the idea of a ballerina portraying an ugly old hag. Indeed, the two interpreters of the role I saw last week were anything but old hags.

On the opening night, the Danish artist Sorella Englund dominated the stage as a superb, almost noble impersonation of evil, making one wonder whether her hatred for James did not stem from more deep-rooted reasons than the offence caused by his guilt-induced outburst in Act I. Elizabeth McGorian, on Saturday, turned Madge into a fascinating, young — and disturbingly beautiful — crippled and embittered outcast who, not unlike the sylph, has long been secretly in love with James, admirably expressed in her final gesture of despair.

The dramatic flexibility of Kobborg’s reading extends to all the roles, thus providing each interpreter with a unique platform for her (or his) interpretative skills. I admired greatly both of the sylphs I saw last week — Alina Cojocaru and Tamara Rojo — for I found their interpretations intelligently different and complementary. Cojocaru is a more than ideal contemporary embodiment of the Romantic ballerina. Her sylph floats effortlessly through a wide gamut of emotions, totally unaware that her whims will lead to her own death. It is difficult to forget her expression of despair and terror, when, having lost her wings and her sight, she calls for James. Rojo, too, seems to have emerged from a Romantic print of the ideal ballerina, but her reading of the character highlights more of its bewitching naughtiness. It is clear from the start that she wants to wreck James’s marriage.

It is a pity that the adjective ‘divine’, once favoured by the Romantics, has acquired all sorts of camp associations and is now synonymous with poor journalistic writing, for ‘divine’ was what sprung to my mind while watching both Cojocaru and Rojo. Their respective partners were excellent, too. Ivan Putrov, with Cojocaru, was a dreamy James, at times a little too detached from the action, but lusciously perfect in every technical and interpretative detail. Rupert Pennefather, with Rojo, is the perfect Romantic hero, dancing with aristocratic elegance and clear technique.

On the opening night, La Sylphide was paired with Flemming Flindt’s choreographic adaptation of Ionesco’s The Lesson, a powerful, dark piece. Zenaida Yanowsky gave a memorable rendition of the role of the pianist, while Kobborg stood out as the disturbed, murderous teacher. I only wish Roberta Marquez, as his victim, had dealt more subtly with the psychological traits of the student.

The other performance of La Sylphide opened with Frederick Ashton’s Les Rendezvous. Although I have still to get used to the garish postmodern costumes and sets of this relatively new production of the 1933 ballet, I could not help admiring the exquisite dancing of the company, admirably led by Valeri Hristov and Marianela Nu