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.