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Flash Review, 7-13: Ephemeral & Eternal
Lacotte, Hurel, & the Paris Opera Ballet Corps Corner Taglioni's 'Sylphide'

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004 The Dance Insider

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PARIS -- At the Garnier Opera House this month, we are witnessing a double-tragedy: James's betrayal of his ephemeral love in Pierre Lacotte's rigorously researched 1972 reconstruction of Filippo Taglioni's 1832 "La Sylphide," which had disappeared from the repertory of the company that originated it for more than a century; and Paris Opera Ballet director Brigitte Lefevre's apparent betrayal of the Ballet's Romantic tradition, which will be nowhere in evidence next season, as the directrice de la danse marches her grumbling charges inexorably into a vision of 21st century ballet in which the Romantic and Classical heritage are reduced to occasional cameos in favor of largely untested modern choreographers, punctuated by the occasional modern master like Trisha Brown or Pina Bausch.

How poignant, then, to witness last night's pristine performance by a corps of sylphides including Aurelia Bellet, Aurore Cordellier, Lucie Clement, Mathilde Froustey, Amelie Lamoureux, Severine Westermann, Anemone Arnaud, Clair Bevalet, Sarah-Kora Dayanova, Noemie Djiniadhis, Peggy Dursort, Daphnee Gestin, Natacha Gilles, Christelle Granier, Laura Hecquet, Christine Peltzer, Ninon Raux, Gyslaine Reichert, Alice Renavand, and Maud Riviere, not to mention three sprightly, driven demi-soloists, Caroline Bance, Dorothee Gilbert, and Myriam Kamionka.

If these sylphs weren't so elegant, one might be tempted to liken their exquisite timing and the resulting patterns to those of a Busby Berkeley musical, in segments such as one in which lines of five standing sylphs positioned diagonally on each side of the Garnier's raked stage are intersected by lines of five kneeling dancers, who float under them in shifting friezes. Indeed, there came a point where I stopped watching the principals because I didn't want to miss the next breathtaking tableau from the corps, the appearance of the 'star' seeming less consequential.

Last night's putative star was Aurelie Dupont, whose betrayal began by her being paired (in a change from the announced casting of her longtime partner Manuel Legris) with a teenager (Mathieu Ganio) recently and prematurely promoted from the corps over two levels on up to "etoile," perhaps (I can't find another reason in his performance) because of his connections. So it would perhaps be unfair to critique Dupont's performance as the Sylphide, a role in which she like all its other interpreters in this run were making debuts in this production too rarely seen in recent years. Its re-surfacing this year is meant, one hopes, as some kind of homage to Marie Taglioni, who pioneered the role of the Sylphide and the artistic use of pointe which propelled it in her father's original production. Taglioni would have turned 200 on April 23, an anniversary FINALLY acknowledged by the company which owes her so much in a petite program essay.

With Dupont prematurely winged by an absence of chemistry with her pimply partner (not literally, but that was his aspect; Ganio's one-note "I'm feeling ardent" expression made it seem like someone forgot to tell him he wasn't in the corps anymore, which is not to insult corps dancers, but there are male corps dancers who sport this expressionless expression), it was left to Effie, in the person of a legitimately rising star, Melanie Hurel, to demonstrate the power of pointe in expression, and she didn't disappoint.

In recent years, it seems that the power of pointe that's gotten the most attention is its power for propulsion or at least the base for propulsion. But its most poignant use, it seems to me, is as a container of emotional tension. I can still remember a performance of years ago in which American Ballet Theatre's Alessandra Ferri, enacting the heroine in Agnes DeMille's "Fall River Legend," portrayed Lizzie Borden's decline into murderous dementia solely in the spasms of her precipitating foot. It was also through this vehicle, in the foot's strained arching balanced on its pointe, her back turned to James and her head nestled in her mother's breast, that Hurel rendered Effie's sorrow that her fiance is slipping away from her. The rest of her body wasn't idol. In a refreshingly understated interpretation -- the role of ballet's discarded fiance is often played in two dimensions -- her dancing, particularly the increased weight that seemed to slowly bring her down, as her arabesques showed less and less lift, told of a woman trying her damdest to retain her man but aware she is gradually losing him to an unseen rival.

Weight of a different kind hampered the leaden Gil Isoart partnering Isabelle Ciaravola in the pas de deux des ecossais. If Isoart's easy manner and natural expression make him dramatically suited for a diversion, his thudded landings make it hard to understand why he was cast in a role that demands a light touch. As Gurn, James's rival for Effie's heart, Emmanuel Hoff also seemed miscast, but in this case the observation is a compliment. Hoff's earnestness -- particularly the readiness with which he zooms across the lip of the stage to kneel before Effie and request her hand after James has flown the coop -- make one wish he was playing James, where his energy would have given Dupont more to play off.

If Dupont has her moment, it's when James lassoes her around the waist with the (unbeknownst to him, although he's aware it will clip her), deadly scarf which has been poisoned by the hag Madge (played last night with almost touching pathos by Jean-Marie Didiere). She strains at the waist and in her arched feet as if trying to take off; eternally grounded, she feels and sees her wings molt and blows him a kiss before bowing out. If the Sylphide's death as acted by Dupont hinted at tragedy, James's fate as played by Ganio didn't; I was relieved to see Hurel's heroic Effie marching by in a wedding procession with Hoff's noble Gurn.

But let's get back to that noble corps. I used the word frieze above because in the way not just that they moved into position, but then held it with such stillness, they in effect became works of art in the visual art sense, their tutus (remember, this was also the first tutu ballet) part frame, part matter melded with the material of their bodies, not least of all their faces, to create the effect. What irks me when even people in responsible positions in ballet companies discard Classical or Romantic ballets as irrelevant is that they would not say this about classical painting of the same epoch. These ballets can resonate for contemporary audiences, when played with emotional authenticity -- a "classical' theme is after all eternal -- but they can also work as "museum pieces" if their details are etched truly by the artists, and that happened last night at the Opera.

If I can stick with the museum analogy, this reconstruction of Filippo Taglioni's "Sylphide" also has a master restorer behind it, Pierre Lacotte, who assiduously tracked down the original. As Lacotte notes in his account in the program booklet, after Marie Taglioni protege Emma Livry's interpretation in 1858, this "Sylphide" disappeared from the Opera House with Livry, who died when a stage gaslight torched her costume in another ballet. "Like (Livry)," Lacotte writes, "the ballet was consumed."

When he entered the Opera school at the age of 10, Lacotte recalls in the program (as loosely translated by me), he "discovered a fantastic world which I was happy to penetrate.... It is with curiosity that I... read everything that fell under my eyes concerning our past." Through the writings of Theophile Gautier, Alfred de Musset, George Sand (like Taglioni, also celebrating a bicentennial this year), the poet-politician Lamartine and Victor Hugo, Lacotte came to learn that Taglioni's "La Sylphide" had moved kings, emperors, and tsars throughout the mid-19th century. "The historic interest in this ballet seemed to go beyond the dance world.... The craze made of this ballet a legend and of Marie Taglioni a myth. Fascinated by this work which had disappeared for more than a century, I dreamt that one day I would have the power to remount Taglioni's 'La Sylphide' and revive this chef-d'oeuvre, which must have possessed a magic power to have cast, at this point, its spell over all of Europe."

In 1952, when the Royal Danish Ballet's Harald Lander cast the then 20-year-old Lacotte to dance James in extracts of Bournonville's faithfully preserved 1836 version, Lacotte continues in his program notes, his interest in finding the original was further spurred. 16 years later, after many false trails, "a miracle occurred. I suddenly had under my eyes a dossier which gave me the tracks." A testament by Augusto Gilbert de Voisins, Marie Taglioni's grandson, the document gave the address of his grandmother's archives. At this point, as it turned out, the archives had been dispersed, but Lacotte determined to "go the distance" to track them down. Eventually, his search yielded contemporaneous critiques from the countries where Taglioni's "Sylphide" had been performed, and writings from dancers of the time on the ballet. He found correspondence from Filippo Taglioni with his dancers and collaborators, as well as personal notes, including designs, class notes, and the music Taglioni used in class. Under a score used by a violinist who accompanied the rehearsals (rehearsals were more wont to be accompanied by violinists than pianists in those days, the program notes) were found minute notes describing some steps as well as stage directions for the original production. Pursuing the trail to Russia, Lacotte read accounts by dancers who had worked there with Filippo Taglioni.

Ballet has always been a tradition passed down from one generation to another, and Lacotte got more clues from one of his own teachers, Lubov Egorova. Having worked with Christian Johansson, one of Marie Taglioni's last partners, Egorova taught him what had been passed on to her, specifically Effie's first-act enchainements, part of the dances des ecossaises, and the pantomime in the scene in which the Sylphide appears at the window. In sum, he writes, all this was "essential information, but despite everything, incomplete." From 1968 through 1972, he continued to search for the missing pieces of the puzzle -- "like an archeologist," he says -- and ended by "re-composing" "in the style" the missing pieces. In 1971, Lacotte convinced French television to produce the reconstructed ballet, which was beamed into French homes on January 1, 1972, with the leads taken by Ghislaine Thesmar and Michael Denard, who the Paris Opera Ballet requested when it took the production into its repertoire later the same year. Noella Pointoise and Rudolph Nureyev were among the others who would soon interpret the parts.

Last night's marked the 187th performance of Lacotte's production of Taglioni's "La Sylphide" at the Paris Opera Ballet, which has also toured the production to Russia, Greece, Spain, and London. Lacotte has mounted it on numerous other companies, including the Boston Ballet, which performed the ballet in New York. Considering the modern intentions of its current director, when the ballet will next be seen in Paris after this season is, at the least, an open question.

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